AN UNTHYMELY DEATH
By Susan Wittig Albert
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Wittig Albert
Thyme heals all wounds.
Hey, China, what’s that you’re planting?” Ruby Wilcox asked.
I patted the dirt firmly around the base of the plant and straightened up. “It’s ginkgo,” I said.
Ruby Wilcox is my best friend and partner. Her Crystal Cave, the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs, Texas, is in the same century-old stone building that houses my herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, and our jointly owned tearoom, Thyme for Tea. The building is surrounded with herb gardens, and at this moment, I was working in the garden out front.
Thyme and Seasons and its herb gardens are a far cry from the Houston law office where I used to work as a criminal defense attorney. Leaving the law, moving to a small town, and opening my own businessthese are the best things I’ve ever done for myself (second only to marrying Mike McQuaid, that is). And while some people might find small-town life limited or low on thrills and excitement, that hasn’t been a problem for me. Between the shop, my family, and my friends, I have just about all the excitement I can handle. And if I want to kick up my heels in the big city, it takes less than an hour to drive from Pecan Springs to either Austin or San Antonio. Altogether, it’s a nice arrangement.
Ruby bent over to peer doubtfully at the plant. “That dinky little twig is ginkgo? It’s got a heck of a lot of growing to do. The last ginkgo I saw was a tree. A big tree.” She looked up. “Taller than this building.”
“Give it time,” I said with a grin, and picked up my shovel. “Like about five hundred years. I started this little guy from a cutting, and it’s got some growing to do.” The oldest surviving tree on earth, ginkgo was once described by Charles Darwin as a “living fossil,” because so many of its primitive botanical features are still intact. Extracts made from its leaves have been used for over five thousand years to improve blood circulation, treat asthma and bronchitis, and enhance memory. And even if it were entirely useless, I would still enjoy the dappled shade created by its fan-shaped green leaves. While this little fellow begins stretching up to his full height, I’m going to put up a sign letting people know that his ancestors were already ancient when humans were just beginning to rub sticks together.
From the back door of the shop, my helper, Laurel Riley, waved at me. “You’re wanted on the phone, China,” she called. “It’s Hannah Bucher.”
“Oh, good,” I said, shouldering my shovel and heading for the shop, Ruby tagging along behind. Hannah is a seventy-something herb gardener who lives in Cedar Crossing, not far away. She specializes in thyme, growing and selling dozens of different varieties of this beautiful herb. She had promised to give me some plants of a new cultivar of lemon thyme, so I could try it in my garden. I’d been waiting impatiently for her call.
But Hannah hadn’t phoned to talk about herbs. Instead, she’d called to ask me to come to Cedar Crossing to see her, and something in her voice prompted me to ask why.
“It’s an urgent personal matter,” she said. She lowered her voice, as if she were afraid she might be overheard. “I hate to say it, China, but I’m afraid someone is” She stopped, and then in a lighter, brighter voice, went on: “I do hope you’ll be able to come and get those lemon thyme plants soon. I’ve been saving them for you. When can you come?”
I glanced at the calendar. McQuaid and Brianmy husband and our thirteen-year-oldwere going to Houston the next weekend to catch an Astros game. “How about Sunday?” I asked. Ruby and I had been meaning to visit our friends Barbara Thatcher and Ramona Pierce, who also live in Cedar Crossing.
“Sunday would be fine.” Hannah’s voice became low and urgent again. “Unless you can come sooner. And please bring Ruby. I need to talk to both of you.”
Frowning, I hung up and went to the door of the Crystal Cave. As usual, Ruby was burning her own handcrafted herbal incense, which creates a perfect backdrop for the tarot cards, rune stones, crystals, and books on astrology and the occult that she sells.
“Want to drive over to Cedar Crossing on Sunday?” I asked.
Ruby pushed a curl of henna-red hair out of her eyes and looked up from the stack of books she was shelving. “Your plants are ready?”
“Yes, but that isn’t why Hannah called. She wants to talk to us. It sounds like something’s wrong.”
Ruby gave me a curious look. “What do you suppose is going on?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling troubled. “I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.”
But Hannah never got a chance to tell us what was bothering her. On Friday, I learned that she was dead.
“A heart attack?” Ruby asked, her eyes widening when I told her.
“That’s what the newspaper says.” I handed her the obituary that Ramona Pierce had clipped out of the Cedar Crossing Tattler and faxed to me. “Apparently, she died the day after we talked. She’s being buried tomorrow.”
“What a shame,” Ruby said sadly. “Hannah was such a lovely, vibrant woman. I had no idea she had heart trouble.”
“Neither had I.” I frowned, thinking about the tone of Hannah’s voice when she had said that she needed to talk to us, urgently. “What would you think about going to Cedar Crossing anyway? I really would like to have those plants Hannah was saving for me.”
“And I’d like to see Ramona and Barbara,” Ruby said in a decided tone. “Let’s do it.”
Cedar Crossing is a pretty village, built on the bank of the Guadalupe River. Its chief claim to fame is a simple white-painted church with a delicate steeple, built by the German settlers who established the town 150 years ago. Hannah’s house and gardens were just down the road from the church. On Sunday afternoon, Ruby and I drove slowly past, admiring the sprays of bright foliage that spilled over the stone wall. The sunny yellow blooms of St. John’s wort were brilliant against the feathery purple leaves of a tall bronze fennel, and golden-leaved feverfew splashed at the foot of a sprawling gray-blue Russian sage.
When I saw a woman pushing a wheelbarrow down the path, I pulled over and stopped. I studied her for a moment, then turned to Ruby. “I’d like to talk to her,” I said. “But let’s pretend we don’t know anything about Hannah’s death.”
Ruby gave me a curious look. “Why would we do that?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Just a hunch, I guess.”
Ruby grinned. She is the kind of person who always trusts a hunch. “Go for it,” she said. “Get that right brain in gear.”
The woman behind the wheelbarrow was tanned and athletic-looking, with dark brown hair twisted into a loose, thick braid down her back. She wore a red bandana headband, a sweatshirt and jeans, and heavy garden gloves. Her face was stern and unsmiling.
“Hi,” I said cheerfully. “I’m China Bayles, and this is Ruby Wilcox.”
The woman frowned. “China Bayles. Aren’t you the person who wanted some of Hannah’s lemon thyme?”
“That’s me. Hannah said we could pick up the plants anytime.” I shaded my eyes with my hands and looked around. “Is she here?”
“Hannah’s dead.” The woman pressed her lips tightly together. “She died early Wednesday morning.”
Ruby’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, as if this were the first she’d heard of it. “An accident?”
“They say it was a heart attack.” The woman’s voice was taut, and she wasn’t looking at us. “The funeral was yesterday.” She nodded in the direction of the church. “She’s buried in the churchyard.”
“I am so sorry,” I said quietly. “Hannah was a lovely person.” I looked around the garden, which must have covered at least two acres. The fragrance of honeysuckle and roses surrounded us. “It’s so sad to think that she won’t be here to take care of this beautiful garden. I hope the next person who owns it will love it as much as she did.”
The woman’s eyes flashed an enigmatic message. “I’ll take care of it,” she said roughly. “I promised Hannah I would.”
“Managing a garden this size is a big job,” I said. “It takes a lot of skill and knowledge. You really have to love it.”
“That’s why Hannah did what she did,” the woman said. She turned toward the house and a look of something like hatred crossed her face. ''And no matter what they say,” she burst out passionately, “she wanted me to have it after she died.”
“Who do you suppose ‘they’ are?” Ruby whispered to me as the woman strode away, pushing her wheelbarrow. “And who is she?”
“I have no idea,” I said. I glanced toward the house. Another woman, short and plump and wearing a blue apron, was standing on the back porch, under the golden tangle of hops vines that covered the roof. At one time, Hannah had brewed her own beer, and had even given lectures on the subject.
The woman saw us and beckoned. “Let’s talk to her,” I said to Ruby. “Maybe she knows what’s going on.”
“You must be China and Ruby,” the woman said as we approached the porch. “Aunt Hannah told me you might be here.” She bit her lip. “I suppose you know that she died several days ago.”
The kitchen was almost as pretty as the garden, with a cheerful red-checked cloth on the table and windowsills filled with pots of scented geranium. The woman introduced herself as Luella Mitchell, Hannah’s niece. As we sat at the table and sipped glasses of iced tea, she told us about the circumstances of Hannah’s death.
“It was very sudden,” she said. Her round face was sad. “And quite unexpected. I’ve lived with my aunt for the past three years and even helped take care of her accounts, and I never even suspected that she had a bad heart.” She sat down at the kitchen table and pulled a tissue out of her apron pocket to wipe her eyes. “It’s so hard to accept.”
I leaned forward. “Hannah told me that she wanted to talk to me about an urgent matter. She sounded terribly troubled. Do you know what was bothering her?”
Luella’s face tightened. “I certainly do,” she said. “She was afraid.”
“Afraid?” Ruby put down her glass.
“Of that woman you were talking to, out there in the garden. Jessica Powell, her name is.” Luella shook her head sadly. “Jessica killed somebody once, you know. She spent a long time in jail.”
”She did?” Ruby breathed.
Luella nodded soberly. “Aunt Hannah realized that she’d made a dangerous mistake, giving Jessica a job and letting her live in the garage apartment. And worse, putting her into her will. The woman has a green thumb, there’s no doubt about that. But she moved in and just took over.” She shook her head. “Why, she pushed poor Aunt Hannah right out of her own garden!”
“It’s true, then, that Jessica Powell will inherit this place?” I asked, remembering what the woman had said.
Luella’s face was set. “Aunt Hannah called you, China, because she wanted some legal advice. She’d finally got up the courage to get rid of Jessica. But she died before she could change her will, so I guess”
She was interrupted by a knock on the screen door. We turned to see two uniformed police officers standing on the porch.
“We’re looking for Miz Mitchell,” one of them said through the screen. “Hannah Bucher’s niece.”
“That’s me.” Luella stood, her face suddenly apprehensive. “Is there something the matter?”
“Afraid so, ma’am.” The officer held out a paper. “We have a warrant to search the residence of Jessica Powell.”
“My apartment?” Jessica Powell asked angrily. She had suddenly materialized beside the porch. “What are you looking for?”
“Please show us your living quarters, Miz Powell,” the officer said without answering her question. The two men followed her through the garden, in the direction of the two-story garage.
“Why have they come?” Luella asked in a bewildered voice. “What are they looking for?”
“Evidence,” I said. “They couldn’t have gotten a warrant unless they had probable cause to suspect that Jessica Powell had committed a crime.”
Ruby’s eyes were large. “Murder?” she whispered.
“No, no!” Luella exclaimed. “That’s wrong! Aunt Hannah had a heart attack!”
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” I said grimly.
Fifteen minutes later the officers were back. Jessica Powell was with them, stony-faced and silentand handcuffed.
“But I don’t understand!” Luella exclaimed. “Why are you arresting her? What’s she done?”
One officer gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, Miz Mitchell, but your aunt didn’t die of natural causes. The autopsy report you requested indicates that she was poisoned.”
“Poisoned!” Luella whispered. “But...but how? What kind of poison?”
The other deputy held up a plastic evidence bag. “Nicotine,” he said. In the bag was a can of smoking tobacco.
“Nicotine poisoning?” Ramona Pierce asked blankly. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“I have,” Barbara Thatcher said in a grim voice. “Wicked stuff. Terribly toxic.”
It was Sunday evening, and Ruby and I and our two hostesses were seated at the table in the dining room of Ramona and Barbara’s home, finishing a wonderful dinner of fresh garden vegetables and penne pasta with herbsone of Barbara’s specialty recipes. It was a pretty room, with a pair of French doors that opened out onto a patio bordered with rosemary, and the setting sun cast a golden light over Ramona’s garden. The two women had bought the house together the previous year. Barbara practices law in San Antonio, and Ramona has her own interior decorating business.I nodded, agreeing with Barbara. “Tobacco is toxic, all right. It’s one of our most problematic herbs.”
Ruby looked up from her plate. “You’re saying that tobacco is an herb?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a member of the nightshade family, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplantand potatoes, too.” I forked up a few veggies to demonstrate. “Over the centuries, tobacco has been used to treat all kinds of ailments, including cancer. But it is most definitely toxic.”
Ramona frowned. “I know that cigarettes are bad news, but”
“It’s not just cigarettes,” Barbara said. “When I was in the DA’s office, we prosecuted a case where the killer poisoned his victim with a nicotine-based pesticide.”
“Gardeners sometimes brew up their own pesticide by steeping cigarettes in water,” I said. “Some people have been accidentally poisoned just by getting it on their hands.”
Barbara looked at me curiously. “So the police, acting on a tip, searched Jessica Powell’s room?”
“And found the tobacco can,” Ruby said. “They think she made a nicotine concentrate and somehow administered it to Hannah. In her coffee, maybe, or in some strong-tasting food, like chili.”
“But why?” Ramona asked, frowning. “Everyone liked Hannah. We’ll all miss her.”
“Because Jessica was the beneficiary of her will,” I said.
“And Hannah had become afraid of her and was planning to change it,” Ruby explained. “Jessica must have realized what Hannah had in mind, and decided to take action.”
Barbara raised her eyebrows. “Hannah was planning to alter her will?”
“That’s why she called China,” Ruby explained. “According to Luella Mitchell, her aunt intended to make a new will and”
“But Hannah just made that will,” Barbara said, “not three weeks ago! I know, because I prepared it for her. I can’t believe she’d decide to change it without consulting me.”
I stared at her. “You were Hannah Bucher’s lawyer?”
“For over two years,” Barbara replied. “And she never said a word about being afraid. Hannah and Jessica were friends long before I came into the picture. Hannah gave her a place to live and a job right after she got out of prison.”
“Jessica killed someone,” I remarked. “At least, that’s what Hannah’s niece told us.”
Barbara made a face. “Seven or eight years ago, she shot her abusive husband and spent the next six years in prison. But times have changed. If the case came to trial today, even here in Texas, she’d get a lighter sentence.”
Ramona frowned. “Maybe Hannah just didn’t want to tell you that she was afraid of Jessica.”
“Maybe,” Barbara replied slowly. She didn’t sound convinced. “But she did tell me that she was afraid of her brother. That was why she didn’t want her property to go to him.”
“Her brother?” I asked.
Barbara nodded. “Harold. He’s Luella’s father. When Hannah told him that the house and gardens were going to Jessica, he got so angry that she thought he was going to hit her.” She poured herself a second cup of coffee and passed around a plate of lemon madeleines that Ramona had made. “If you ask me, the case against Jessica Powell isn’t as open and shut as it might seem.”
We could have asked the police to talk to Harold Bucher, but since they had already arrested Jessica Powell, they were probably satisfied that they had the killer in custody. Ruby and I were curious about Hannah’s brother, thoughand anyway, it was a beautiful Monday morning, and our day off. So we got directions to the Bucher ranch, and after breakfast with Ramona and Barbara, climbed in the car and drove north on Cedar Crossing Road for ten miles or so.
Cattle ranching isn’t as profitable as it used to be, and in this part of Texas, a great many of the large ranches have been broken up and sold. Barbara had told us that the Bucher ranchthe B-Bar-Rhad been a huge spread once. Now, all that was left was the old ranch house, built of native stone and nestled into a grove of willow trees where Harold Bucher lived. Around it bloomed a wild garden, filled with wildflowers and herbs: echinacea, tansy, and Joe-Pye weed.
“Looks like Hannah and her brother shared one interest, anyway,” Ruby remarked as we got out of the car. “They were both gardeners.”
I glanced toward the house. A colorful flock of bantam chickens was chasing bugs through the grass, while a black dog napped on the porch. He raised his head when he saw us and gave a short, sharp bark. A moment later, we saw a stooped old man in denim overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat, hoe in hand, going through the gate into a vegetable garden. Ignoring us, he began to chop weeds along a row of healthy-looking garlic.
“Are you Mr. Bucher?” Ruby called.
“That’s me,” the old man said shortly. “What d’ya want?”
We walked closer. “We’d like to talk to you about your sister,” I said. “We were friends of hers.”
“We were very sorry to hear about her death,” Ruby said softly. “It must have been a terrible shock.”
Harold Bucher went right on hoeing. The man might have been in his late seventies, his face lined and gray, his eyes slitted against the bright sun. “She was an old woman,” he said sourly. “People die when they get old.”
“But your sister didn’t die of old age,” I replied. “You’ve heard the results of the autopsy?”
“Luella told me. Said the sheriff arrested that Jessica woman for poisoning her.” The old man turned his head and spat. “Well, all I got to say is, Hannah’s fancy new will won’t do Jessica no damn good in jail.”
He was right, of course. A murderer cannot profit from her crime. If Jessica Powell was convicted of killing Hannah, she wouldn’t inherit. But who would?
“Are you Hannah’s nearest relative?” I asked.
“What if I am?” He eyed me obliquely. “How come you wanna know?”
I shrugged. “Just curious, that’s all.” I looked around the place. It must not be easy for a man his age to live so far from civilization. What if he got sick? “You ever think of moving into Cedar Crossing?”
“My girl Luella’s been after me to move,” he said grudgingly. “Reckon I might, if I could find me a pretty place with a nice garden.” He spat again. “Wouldn’t feel right if I couldn’t get dirt under my fingernails every day.”
I nodded, knowing how he felt. My fingernails have dirt under them most of the time. I wondered if the “pretty place” he had in mind was Hannah’s. “Did you visit your sister often?”
He stopped hoeing and straightened up. “Saw her the day ‘fore she died. We had some fam’ly business to transact. Didn’t get it done, though. Got interrupted by that nosy neighbor of hers. Mildred Rawlins.” He reached into the pocket of his bib overalls. “You wanna know about Hannah, you see Mildred. Her an’ Hannah was thick as a pair of thieves.”
He took his hand out of his pocket. He was holding a can of chewing tobacco.
“Do you think Hannah’s brother could have killed her?” Ruby asked thoughtfully as we drove back to Cedar Crossing.
“He seems to have had a motive,” I said. “According to Barbara, he was furious about the will. And from what he said about wanting a place with a nice garden, I’d guess that he was hoping to inherit Hannah’s house.”
“Not just motive, but means,” Ruby replied grimly. “Did you see that can of chewing tobacco? And he admitted that he was with Hannah the day before she died, so he had opportunity, as well!”
“It’s certainly something to think about,” I agreed. “Let’s see what Hannah’s neighbor has to say.”
Mildred Rawlins’s garden was smaller than Hannah’s, but very pretty and bordered with a low, clipped hedge of germander, a plant that was cultivated in many medieval apothecary gardens for its usefulness in treating rheumatism and gout. Ruby and I were knocking at the front door when she came around the house, carrying a tray of seedlings. She was a tall, thin woman with gray hair in short, tight curls all over her head. We introduced ourselves, but she already seemed to know who we were. She put down the tray and invited us in.
Ruby and I went into the living room while Mildred went for tea and cookies. She obviously enjoyed garden crafts, and the room was full of her workbouquets of dried flowers, some small framed pictures made with delicate arrangements of pressed pansies, lavender, and dried herbs, and a sweet-smelling bowl of rose potpourri.
In a few moments, Mildred was back with a tray. “Hannah talked about you two often,” she said, pouring a fragrant tea out of a china pot. “She was anxious for your visit. She hoped you could help her.” She sighed heavily. “I certainly do miss her. We were good friendsit’s hard to believe she’s gone.”
“Did she tell you what she wanted to talk to us about?” I asked.
“Not directly,” Mildred said. “But I got the idea that something odd was going on and she hoped you’d help her straighten it out.”
“Her death was tragic,” Ruby said with a sigh. “I’m glad they’ve caught the killer.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that if I was you,” Mildred replied darkly. “Jessica Powell isn’t much liked around here. Folks don’t forget or forgive the past, and that husband she killed grew up in this little town. But Hannah gave Jessica a job and a place to live when she got out of prison. That took courage, and Jessica was grateful. She’d never have done anything to harm Hannah.”
“They found a can of tobacco in her room,” I pointed out.
“What does that prove?” Mildred tossed her head. “Lots of folks in this town have tobacco in their houses. Cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco. Even nicotine patches. I read somewhere that you can die if you put too many of those patches on yourself.”
“But if Jessica didn’t do it,” Ruby asked reasonably, “who did?”
Mildred shook her head, tight-lipped. “I’m not one to accuse, mind you. But that brother of Hannah’she’s a devious old man, with a terrible temper. And he was here the day before Hannah died. I know because I walked in on them. They were having a fight.”
“What were they fighting about?” I asked.
“About the house, that’s what,” Mildred said fiercely. “They’d been arguing about it ever since Hannah made that will.” She stood up and went to a corner cupboard. “Hannah asked me to keep something for her until you got here.” She turned, holding a large manila envelope.
“What’s in it?” Ruby asked curiously as I took the envelope.
“Papers,” Mildred said with a little shrug. “That’s all Hannah told mejust some old papers.”
It was almost noon by the time we got back to Barbara and Ramona’s house. Barbara was still at her office, but we found Ramona at the picnic table in the backyard, repotting several scented geraniums.
“Hi,” she said, looking up from her project. “Did you learn anything new?”
Ruby shrugged. “We learned plentywe just haven’t figured out what it means. Let’s have a look, China.”
I opened the envelope Mildred Rawlins had given us and slid the contents onto the table. But if we were hoping to see something dramatica threatening note, or a map to a long-lost treasure, or old love letters tied with a faded pink ribbonwe were disappointed.
“Why, these are nothing but canceled checks,” Ruby said, sounding disappointed. She picked up one of the two rubber-banded bundles and flipped through it. “They’re all made out to the Texas Fidelity Investment Company. Looks like they go back about three years.” She pointed to the signature. “They’ve all been signed by Hannah.”
I glanced through the other bundle. “These are made out to Texas Fidelity, too.” I looked closer. “There’s an account number typed on the check.” I read it aloud.
Ruby frowned. “But these checks have a different account number. Hannah had two accounts?”
“I wonder why she wrote the checks but typed the account numbers,” Ramona remarked. “If I were going to the trouble of typing anything, I’d type everything. Except for my signature, of course.”
“Maybe somebody else typed the numbers,” Ruby suggested.
“Maybe Hannah didn’t know there were two accounts,” I said slowly. “Maybe, when she signed the check, she thought she was depositing the money in her regular account. Then somebody else typed in the account numbersmaking some deposits to Hannah’s regular account, and some to a second account.”
Ruby snapped her fingers. “And then maybe Hannah discovered the second account and figured out that somebody was stealing her money! And that’s when she called you, Chinato help her put a stop to it.”
Ramona stood up. “I’ll phone Barbara and tell her what you’ve found. As Hannah’s lawyer, she can contact the investment company and get the names on those accounts.”
Barbara called back in fifteen minutes with what she had learned. Ramona put the call on the speaker phone, so we could all hear.
“You were right, China,” Barbara said. “There were two investment accounts. One is in Hannah’s name, and has about thirty thousand dollars in it. When the other account was closed last Thursday, the balance was nearly seventy thousand.”
“Last Thursday!” Ruby exclaimed.
“The day after Hannah died,” I said. “That can’t be a coincidence. Whose name was on the account?”
“Jessica’s?” Ramona asked.
“Hannah’s brother?” Ruby guessed.
“Hannah’s niece,” I said.
“That’s right,” Barbara said. “The name on the account was Luella Mitchell.”
“But just because Luella was investing her aunt’s money under her own name doesn’t mean she’s a killer,” Ruby pointed out.
“Let’s see if we can reconstruct what might have happened,” I said. “Luella figured out that her aunt had discovered her scheme and was planning to expose itand perhaps to have her charged with embezzlement. She brewed a nicotine concentrate and put a fatal dose into her aunt’s coffee, or into some other strong-tasting food. Hannah died of cardiac arrest, and everybody thought it was a simple heart attack.”
“Until,” Ruby said, “the autopsy report came back.”
“Right,” I said. “The autopsy that Luella herself had requested. If she hadn’t insisted on an autopsy, the death would have been put down to natural causes.”
“So what are you saying, China?” Ramona asked, frowning.
“I’m saying that Luella wanted the autopsy in order to prove that her aunt had died of nicotine poisoning. Then she hid the tobacco can under Jessica’s mattress and tipped off the police that it was there.”
“But why incriminate Jessica?” Ramona asked in a puzzled tone. “If all Luella wanted was to get out from under a possible embezzlement charge”
“Because,” Ruby said triumphantly, “that’s not all Luella wanted. If Jessica were convicted of Hannah’s murder, she couldn’t inherit Hannah’s estate.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Hannah’s property would go to her brother, Harold. And he’s an old man. It wouldn’t be long before everything belonged to his daughter.”
“It makes sense,” Ramona said reluctantly, “but it’s just a theory. How are you going to prove it?”
“I wonder,” I said, “where that can of smoking tobacco came from. It was an odd brand, as I recall. Duke’s, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Ruby said. “You don’t suppose Luella would have been careless enough to buy it around here, do you?”
As it turned out, that was exactly what had happened. It took us less than an hour to canvass three convenience stores and the only grocery in town. In the end, we found one that carried that particular brand of tobacco, and a curious clerk who remembered Luella’s purchase.
“We don’t sell that brand very often,” she said, “so I remember. It was a lady that bought it, which kind of surprised me, since smoking tobacco ain’t exac’ly what most women around here buy. They smoke cigarettes, y’ knowand they don’t usually roll their own. But I figgered maybe she was gittin’ it for somebody else.”
Once we had the clerk’s statement, it didn’t take long to convince the sheriff to arrange a lineup and persuade Luella to be a part of it. The clerk identified her without hesitation. Confronted with the evidence of her crimethe tobacco purchase and the second investment accountLuella broke down and confessed. The case became even stronger when the police found Luella’s fingerprint on the inside of the tobacco can lid.
Not long after, Jessica was a free woman.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said to Ruby and me as we stood together in Hannah’s gardenhers, now.
“We don’t need any thanks,” I said. Around us, the thyme that Hannah had planted was blooming, each bush covered with bees gorging themselves on the fragrant nectar. I thought of an old bit of folklore I’d heard oncethat each thyme blossom contains the soul of a departed loved oneand felt glad that Jessica would be around to take care of the garden and carry on Hannah’s tradition of growing thyme. “It’s enough to know that the garden will go on, just as Hannah wanted it to.”
Jessica’s smile made her face almost pretty. “Yeah. Well, that’ll happen, for sure. But in the meantime, don’t forget these.” She bent over to pick up a tray of sturdy lemon thyme seedlings.
So Ruby and I drove home. Hannah’s untimely death was tragic, yes. But now I’d have a bit of her garden, growing in my own. And as someone said once, “Thyme heals all wounds.”