Crotchety, seventy-something Julia Clancy of High Hope Farm feels a little wobbly one August morning. With stables to clean and riding lessons to give, the stoic New Englander ignores her symptoms-and ends up in the ER with a heart attack. Even then, she's insisting it's indigestion; even then, her sharp eyes don't miss a thing. And a glimpse of something highly unusual will entangle Julia Clancy in the baffling murder of a hospital VIP. The police soon have suspects galore and no hard evidence. But Julia tells her niece Sarah Deane what she saw...and what she fears: that the killer will get her next. Now amateur sleuth Sarah needs to make her own diagnosis of Julia's revelation and sew up the case before the star witness gets a fatal visit from Dr. Death....
About the Author
J.S. Borthwick lives with her family on the Maine coast, where many of her mysteries are set.
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Intensive Scare Unit
By J. S. Borthwick
ST. MARTIN'S MINOTAURCopyright © 2004 J. S. Borthwick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJULIA Clancy was feeling a little on the wobbly side. Not sick, mind you. Nothing unusual for an old bat of seventy-one. I mean, what did she expect? To be able to leap out of bed, hit the floor running, gulp down breakfast, and make it down to the barn by seven at the latest. But climbing out of bed, getting dressed for the day-work boots, khaki trousers, worn cotton shirt-had been turning lately into something of a chore. Get a grip, she told herself, because she had to go down to the barn to help in the feeding and watering twenty-four horses that made up the major part of the population of High Hope Farm.
She looked at her bedside clock. Twenty to eight. Disgraceful. Friday, and so much to do. She heaved herself out of bed and, stumbling over the uneven pine-board floor, barely made it into the bathroom. In this trip she was followed, as always, by her tail-wagging English setters, Tucker and Belle, one of whom had spent the night across the foot of her bed, the other underneath. But even with the shower at full blast-hot and then cold-her exercises-the ritual bending of creaking knees, the rotating of neck and shoulders-did not rouse a spark of vitality. With a major effort she dragged on her clothes, laced her boots, and then, going to the sink to brush her teeth, comb her hair, she found herself staring into the mirror at this old crone, this wrinkled, weathered face of someone's grandmother-which she wasn't unless you counted the dogs and horses. She frowned at the reflection, the dark eyebrows, eyes underlined by shadows, a tight mouth, gray hair the consistency of Brillo. The whole image that reminded certain friends given to frankness of one of those small rough-coated dogs, a terrier, perhaps.
The trouble was that right now she didn't feel in the least like a terrier. For a few minutes she tried to conjure up exactly what kind of dog she did resemble and came to the unhappy conclusion that she felt remarkably un-dog-like. More like a worn-out pack mule. Or how about a lizard? A sloth? The trouble was August. This year, August had been hot and dry, filled with bugs, a variety of biting flies, and broken at intervals by sudden short thunderstorms that did nothing to alleviate the dry cracked fields and pastures.
In this depressed frame of mind, Julia descended the stairs of the old farmhouse and by the time she'd reached the kitchen and put on the teakettle and an egg to boil, she had decided to take steps. Not to the doctor. That would be a drastic move, particularly since her doctor was one Alex McKenzie, the husband of her niece Sarah, and Julia certainly didn't want any temporary infirmity of hers to be chatted up in family circles. Yes, she knew all that talk about the sacrosanct nature of doctor and patient, but she didn't trust her nosy niece not to screw some fragment of information out of Alex.
No, there was something else she had had in mind for some time. She would make a visit to one of those health-food shops that sold thousands of vitamins and herbal remedies. What she needed, she decided, sawing away with a bread knife on a hard loaf of Italian bread, was a jump-start. It would be like pouring high-octane gas into an ancient engine. Give the engine a boost. There would be someone in the shop who would lead her to a magic mix of potions and pills. She ran through a few names she had heard talked about, names like niacin, fish oil, flaxseed, calcium, some multivitamin for the senior citizen, a tablet to lubricate the joints. It just took a little research.
This plan so energized Julia that after a gulp of orange juice and a few bites of her boiled egg, cradling her mug of tea, she walked with almost a sprightly step down the sloping path to her large lower barn, home to most of the farm's equine inhabitants. Arriving at the open door to the stable aisle and feeling that she must exert her managerial powers, she proceeded for the next hour to hector her stable manager, Patrick O'Reilly. This she did, forcing herself to move briskly about while lecturing on subjects as various as the application of poultices, the mixing of hoof-strengthening preparations, and the management of a tendon problem in her regular riding companion, a sixteen-hand bay gelding named Duffle.
Patrick, dressed as usual in a worn blue denim shirt, leather puttees around his legs, his feet encased in tough boots, his square face lined and reddened with wind and age, went about his business, running his hands down this horse's withers, that horse's shoulders and hooves, administrating medications and supplements, nodding when now and then Julia made a particularly emphatic point. Patrick, gray in the service of High Hope Farm and Julia Clancy, keeping his natural Irish dander in hand, had long ago learned to close his ears and get on with his work exactly as he had planned.
But toward the beginning of the second hour Julia found that it was a lot easier to issue orders to Patrick from a sitting position on a bale of hay. Moreover, she found a strange sense of relief in knowing that Duffie's tendonitis would not allow him to be ridden for some time to come. And looking out of the barn door to the path that rose uphill to the farmhouse door, she thought that it looked steeper, farther away than usual.
It was all, she decided, due to having bolted her breakfast because she was late getting up that morning. Now she would go and have a second cup of tea and make some toast. Or oatmeal. Oatmeal was always good for what ailed one. In the words of her ninety-year-old mother, Mrs. Anthony Douglas, oatmeal stood by you. Julia pushed herself into a standing position, reached over to pat the neck of a chestnut mare on crossties who was being brushed by Patrick, and suddenly felt the barn floor heaving ever so slightly, rather like the deck of a ship at sea.
Alarmed, Patrick reached for her arm. "Hey, Mrs. Clancy. Steady, there. Are you all right? You look pale. Shall I walk you back to the house now?"
Julia drew up her five-foot-three self, braced her shoulders, said, "Nonsense, Patrick," in a loud voice and with a firm step marched out of the barn and started up the drive toward the house. Midway up the rising path, bothered by a certain breathlessness becoming second by second more noticeable, she slowed her steps, hoping Patrick wasn't looking. This unpleasant feeling was familiar; she'd experienced it off and on during the past two or three weeks, but now it seemed more assertive. She came to a halt and at the same time became aware that a disagreeable, almost painful, sensation was rising from below her throat, crawling around her neck, her jaw, and, strangely, heading for her ear. I'll take some Tylenol, she thought. Then look into those vitamins. The health-food store. And maybe I'll start ...
But she never pictured a third remedy. The gravel path rose to meet her and she fell forward, only just managing at the last second to fling out an arm and save herself from a broken nose.
The next thing Julia was aware of was her setter, Tucker, licking her face and Patrick kneeling beside her, a portable phone in one hand. He seemed, she thought in a confused way, to be calling 911 and in an urgent voice asking for the rescue squad.
"No," called Julia, her own voice sounding to her far away, as if it came from a cavern. "Don't call, I'm fine. Just weak. No breakfast. Let me lie here for just a minute. Patrick, you go back to the barn."
But Patrick, always stubborn when such was called for, began giving directions to the farm, describing what had happened. "Mrs. Clancy, she went down just like that. No, she's conscious, she's ordering me not to call but I'm doing it anyway."
All I need, Julia thought crossly to herself as she let her head loll against her bare arm, the arm resting uncomfortably on the sharp stones of the drive, is to be let alone. Nothing wrong. Tom will come and find me and then everything ... but Tom, oh, yes, Tom Clancy, he'd been dead so long that he wouldn't be coming from so far away and she'd better stay right where she was. Husband Tom, my God, Julia thought, he was another stubborn Irishman, more so than Patrick, and that was going some. Then, slowly, some of the fog cleared, and she thought again, I should eat something. She raised her arm and fumbled in her pocket and came up with a mint lozenge that had been gathering dust in her pocket. Raising her head, she stuffed the mint into her mouth and crunched down. Then, this effort being almost too demanding, she sank back on the ground.
Patrick, alarmed at this action and apparently struck with the idea that Julia might be taking some sort of fatal drug, reached for her arm and found his hand shoved away.
"It's only a mint," she told him in a hoarse voice. "So go away and cancel the rescue squad and start getting the horses out to pasture. That's an order, Patrick. I'm perfectly fine. A little rest, that's what I need. It's one of those little spells you can have when you miss a proper breakfast." But the idea of breakfast, which a few minutes ago had seemed the answer to her discomfort, now, along with the partially chewed mint, caused a cold sweat and rising nausea. And that weird ache along her jaw was back again.
Of course, she knew what had happened. She remembered now. She'd fallen. On the path. On her way up to the house. Probably tripped on something. A stone. One of those cracked places. She would have to have the whole surface redone in the spring. So, she'd gone right down and hit her chest on the hard ground. And her shoulder. Her jaw. No wonder she felt awful. All right, she told herself angrily, get up, get going. You've fallen before. Lots of times, usually off a horse. There was that time last year in New Hampshire when Duffle had refused the in-and-out and over she went. Just like now. Well, it was stupid to be lying here. Falling off a horse was certainly a more serious event than tripping in one's own pathway. Perhaps she should wear her glasses, even going down to the barn. Or up from the barn. Or ... Oh, damnation! She couldn't think straight. The discomfort, now it was a pain. A genuine pain. She closed her eyes and felt herself sliding down a slope toward a vast dark hole where everything hurt.
The next few minutes were for Julia a series of scrambled events. Somehow Patrick had covered her with a horse blanket. And then the ambulance, a large white box of a vehicle with lights blinking, appeared from nowhere at the top of her driveway. Now someone was talking about oxygen and pushing plastic tubing into her nostrils, hooking the ends over her ears. Then her shirt was opened and patches of something were being stuck all over her chest and shoulders, plastic lines were snapped onto the patches, then a voice said something about coming in right away to someone else somewhere. And then the hand shoved a little round pill under her tongue and a voice ordered her to hold the pill there and let it dissolve. And before she could pull herself together and object to these liberties, she was bundled up like a package ready for parcel post, slid onto a stretcher, had three little orange aspirins poked in her mouth, was ordered to "chew," and was then hoisted into the interior of the vehicle, and they were off.
Just like the movies, Julia thought in a muddled way. Or one of those ER real-time series. But those you watched in the comfort of your living room; now she was the feature attraction riding facing backward so she could see from her head's elevated position on the pillow the back window of the ambulance and there was Route 17 unwinding behind her. But the pills must be doing their work; she felt relaxed. Light in the head, but relaxed. Nothing much mattered, did it? Up and away. Tallyho and View Halloo. Galloping, galloping over the rainbow. No, that was something else. Judy Garland and Toto. Julia had seen the movie twice. All those Munchkins and Bert Lahr in a fake lion suit. She closed her eyes and was about to float into space when the blood-pressure cuff around her arm suddenly blew itself up tight around her arm and then slowly expelled its air.
She took a shallow breath and to clear her head tried to focus on the blurry road disappearing behind her. When she got wherever she was going, which was undoubtedly the hospital, she'd pull herself together and go home. Assert herself. And give Patrick a piece of her mind, calling the ambulance when all she'd done was to have a little "incident." A bit of discomfort and faintness. A senior moment, they called it. Or was that forgetting things? And she had so much to do that morning. A delivery of hay, shavings to pick up, and Angelina about to foal. There was no time to go rushing off to an emergency room. And she certainly hoped she hadn't given one of these first-aid people-EMT's they called them-Alex's name. That's all she needed, Alex and Sarah getting into a tizzy over nothing. Alex being bossy and ordering a million tests. Keeping her overnight. Sarah hovering, talking about taking it easy, reminding her that now she was over seventy.
"Hogwash!" she said loudly, and the man fussing with the blood-pressure cuff gave a jump of surprise.
Sarah Deane, niece of Julia Clancy, unaware that anything was amiss, had by coincidence decided to drop in and take her aunt out for lunch. Sarah had just come from a two-week vacation on Weymouth Island with her husband, Alex. Labor Day stood on the horizon, and Sarah had settled into the business of getting ready for her Bowmouth College's fall English classes: checking on book orders and putting her office into some sort of order. The office was the size of a broom closet, and she was being threatened with an office mate, since, in the words of the department chair, Professor Ellis Humber, "... women like to work together." This, Sarah told herself, must not be allowed to happen. Even a newly anointed Ph.D. had a few basic rights, and one was a minimum amount of elbow room. Besides, the female she was threatened with was one Vera Pruczak, from the Drama Department. Good-hearted, but something of a wild woman who shed bits of scripts and reminder notes in every direction. Vera was certainly not someone to share a closet with. Sarah herself was scattered in her habits; two scattered females in a small space were unthinkable.
Therefore, to bolster her courage in confronting her department chairman, a good lunch was needed. With Aunt Julia. First a walk around the farm to admire any new equine additions. Hear about the mare about to foal, listen with sympathy to complaints about hay delivery, the price of fly spray, and the pigheadedness of Patrick. Sarah had heard from the local grapevine, someone who had bumped into her a few days ago at the supermarket, that her aunt had looked a little pale lately. Seemed rather slow in moving.
Excerpted from Intensive Scare Unit by J. S. Borthwick Copyright © 2004 by J. S. Borthwick. Excerpted by permission.
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After a dizzy spell when she almost loses consciousness Julia Clancy is forced by her employee to go to the emergency room where she notices a man sitting quietly in the waiting room looking like he wants to go ten rounds with Lennox Lewis. While she is being examined, she sees the same man in the cubicle next to hers. The man turns out to be the former CEO of the hospital, who is found murdered in a wheelchair in the men¿s room. Julia is admitted to the CCU and tests show she needs an operation to unblock an artery. Her niece Sara Deanne is at the hospital to give her favorite aunt moral support. After the surgery, Julia wakes up to find someone strangling her and she screams for help. The medical personnel believe she was hallucinating due to the effects of the anesthesia. Two other killings occur making Julia and Sara believe these murders and attempted killings are linked. They intend to unmask the perpetrator before they become victims four and five. Once a reader finishes INTENSIVE SCARE UNIT, they will be frightened to death to go to an emergency room. Sara should get a private detective license and forget about teaching because she is such a good sleuth. Sara would also make a fine police officer because she has the intelligence to do well on the job and the intuition needed to ferret out the perpetrators. J. .S. Borthwick has written another delightful amateur sleuth mystery that will please her myriad of fans. Harriet Klausner