In fact, a single arsenic-sprinkled hors d'oeuvre, eaten at her friend Sal's bookstore opening, almost sends Clara Gamadge to her grave a week before Christmas. Luckily she makes it to the hospital instead, thoroughly baffled by the attempt to kill her.
The troops rally 'round her bed son Henry, daughter Paula, faithful cousin Sadd but are hardly a match for the recklessly bold villain they know is the poisoner...and who almost certainly will strike again.
In this deadly game of cat and mouse, Santa himself seems to have abandoned the good guys, until Clara's tough sleuthing draws reinforcements from a most surprising source.
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By Eleanor Boylan
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1993 Eleanor Boylan
All rights reserved.
"I could not believe, Clara, that you'd be so inconsiderate as to die before this matter is settled."
The voice was the voice of my cousin, Charles Saddlier, but Sadd lived in Florida, and I was in bed in New York City trying to get some sleep. And what "matter" was he talking about?
The second voice made even less sense. "You gave us a scare, Mom."
That was my daughter, Paula. But she lived in Boston. Scare?
The third voice made the least sense of all. It was female and unknown to me. "Better let her get some sleep."
Thanks, whoever you are. Sleep was all I wanted now, especially as the weird sensation in my stomach was beginning to recede.... But why was something pinning my left foot to the bed?
* * *
"It was arsenic, Mrs. Gamadge. Do you feel like talking about it?"
Not really. Nor was I at all sure what the attractive, fortyish woman in the white coat meant by "it" unless she was referring to the cast on my ankle, which I'd been told was broken, and what did that have to do with arsenic? I felt miserably confused, but with my family sitting there looking at me expectantly I supposed I must gather my wits.
I'd been told it was ten hours since their voices and that of Dr. Martha Somebody had penetrated my consciousness, that I was in Room 220 at St. Victor's Hospital on Tenth Street, and that "my condition" would keep me there another four or five days. Now pale morning sun slanted through the window, and sitting up in bed in a bright pink bed jacket I'd never seen before, Paula braiding my long white hair which must be in hideous disarray, I felt weak and embarrassed.
I said lamely, "I'm afraid I don't remember much," and looked at Sadd, who was reading, then at my son, Henry, then at his wife, Tina. Their constant presence along with Paula's I'd been dimly feeling. Idiotically I began to cry.
"Go home all of you," I blubbered. "You'll lose your jobs because of me. You haven't left this room for—"
They began telling me to shut up, that now that I was out of danger yes, they'd go about their business, and Sadd, who is my senior by several years and hates New York in the winter, said I didn't seem very grateful that he'd come all the way from Florida when he heard the awful news.
"What awful news?" I was making an earnest effort to put all this together.
"That you'd been poisoned, Mom," said Henry gently.
Poisoned? I'd been poisoned?
"I came at once," said Sadd, looking virtuous. "And in this appalling December weather too."
Still at sea, I blew him a feeble kiss, and he blew one back. The doctor—I assumed that's what she was—smiled at these family pyrotechnics and said, "Mrs. Gamadge, I'm sorry to press, but if you could remember—"
"Doctor," I said, trying to rally, "I should be the sorry one. You must be a busy woman. Tell me your name."
"Martha Cullen. Your own doctor—Arthur Kingman, isn't it?—is in Bermuda, we learned."
Henry said, "Dr. Cullen was on duty in Emergency when you were brought in, Mom."
Brought in? Brought in from where? From where I'd been poisoned? Broken my ankle? What possible connection could one have with the other—or either one with me, for that matter?
"Let me think ..." I sat up straighter in the bed and received a twinge in my leg that made me gasp.
Tina, my petite, sensitive daughter-in-law, said at once, "You're not up to this, Clara."
"Yes, I am." I gritted my teeth, a painful act in itself as nothing in my miserable old frame was prime for gritting.
Paula finished my braid and patted the end where she'd attached a little bow. She said, "There. Now you'll be more comfortable. How does she look?"
"Rather like an over-the-hill Rapunzel," Sadd said.
This produced giggles from my children, and Dr. Cullen looked a bit aghast, but how could she know my nutty family?
"Doctor, I think it's coming back to me," I said. It was, actually, mistily and piecemeal. "I seem to recall ..." Then a quick, penetrating ray. "I was lying on a sidewalk somewhere."
Five heads nodded encouragingly, and Henry said, "Cornelia Street, outside your friend's bookstore."
"Sal's new one," said Tina. "The one you thought up a name for?"
I sounded like a darned parrot, but each word I repeated helped to dispel the mist. "Yes, Sal's new store." Then a fine, productive burst. "It was the day she opened!"
Five more vigorous nods, and I waxed positively chatty. "You see, Doctor, this friend of mine has always wanted to open a bookstore specializing in mystery fiction. There are quite a few of them around the country—a famous one here in New York called The Mysterious Bookshop and one in San Diego called Grounds for Murder, and there's Murder Under Cover and The Scene of the Crime—so for my friend's store I came up with Pushing Murder."
I beamed at the doctor, expecting her to be impressed with the cleverness of it, but she looked rather blank.
Paula said loyally, "An inspired name, really."
Henry and Tina agreed that it was, and Sadd, the eternal grammarian, said, "Of course a participle is never as strong as a verb, but in this case it's quite effective."
Dr. Cullen cleared her throat. "Mrs. Gamadge, do you remember whom you talked to and what you ate at that party?"
"Party?" I was feeling spent. I yanked at the bed jacket and tried to concentrate. "Party. Oh, yes. Sal had a wine-and-cheese do. She wasn't really ready to open yet, but with Christmas coming ..." Oh, no! Christmas—and me in the hospital! I plowed on. "I remember that Sal's husband was still putting up shelves. They've just been married, you know. He's a dear—very handy, too. He made a clever sign for out front. It has the words Pushing Murder between bookends that look like tombstones with—"
"Clara," said Sadd, his eyes on his book, "you're rambling."
"I know it." I suddenly felt exhausted, angry, and put upon. "What happened to my ankle, for heaven's sake? It's hurting again."
Dr. Cullen nodded quickly to Paula, who scooted out the door.
Henry said, "What happened was this: You tripped—you were sick as hell—coming down the steps of Sal's store and crashed on the pavement. By the time the paramedics got there you'd passed out. The broken ankle was obvious, but we couldn't figure out why all the puking. Dr. Cullen recognized poisoning and gave you—what's it called, Doctor?"
"Chelation therapy. It's an intravenous treatment."
"So she saved your life, and all we want you to do is tell us who you think might have wanted to take it."
I looked at my son stupidly. "You mean kill me?"
I stared around in bafflement for a few seconds, then felt sudden relief. The answer was obvious.
Sister Agnes, a brisk, sixtyish nun—the floor supervisor, hadn't she told me?—came purposefully into the room. I pushed up the fluffy sleeve of the bed jacket and said, "Dears—and this means you too, Doctor—isn't it perfectly plain what happened? The poison was meant for another person. I simply got the wrong canapé. Somebody who has it in for somebody decided—oh, how sordid and sick!—to do it at Sal's party but did it clumsily and goofed and got me instead. Oh, thank you, Sister!"
The needle was in and out. I closed my eyes and started to count backward. " ... Ninety-eight, ninety-seven ... Go home, all of you. I love you ... Don't worry ... Nobody wants to do in poor old Clara ... Ninety-three, ninety-two ... Problem is I love anchovies ... Eighty-eight ... eighty-seven ... eighty-six ... Just want to know one thing ... Sixty ... Fifty ... Where did this awful bed jacket come from? ... Forty-two ... buckle my shoe ..."
"Sal," said Tina's voice.
"What about her? ... Thirty ... Twenty ... Jack jump over the ..."
"She brought the bed jacket."
"Oh ... Fleece was white as ... Eighteen ... Poor Sal ... probably blaming herself ... Shouldn't ... Ten—no, nine ... Jack Sprat could eat no ... I should have been like Jack ..."
I snickered at this witticism, then felt irritated because they were all still standing there. I'd told them to go. I'd explained everything. Why were they gawking at me and not going?
Well, then, I'd go myself.
I went.CHAPTER 2
I swam up from the depths of the drug reluctantly, relaxed, remembering Caliban's words "and when I waked I cried to dream again."
The sun seemed less bright, and there was frost on the window. From somewhere—the street probably—came faint, mechanical strains of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
My eyes focused slowly and showed me Sadd sitting in a chair by the window. My children appeared to have left, thank heaven. Why didn't this dear man go too? I was in no danger; there was no reason for this kind of hospital vigil so wearisome to a family. Sadd had to be exhausted. But oddly, he wasn't even dozing. He was sitting upright, gazing into space. I looked at him over the mound of pillows that supported my knees and tried to figure out what was wrong with this picture. His appearance was no different from what it had been last March when I visited him in Florida. There was no thinning of the heavy white hair, no increased stoop of the shoulders. The different factor was something ... abstract.
My cousin Sadd, you must understand, is an incessant reader. A former publisher, he read, until his retirement, for both business and pleasure, and since then entirely and addictively for pleasure. He claims that if a day goes by without a glimpse of the printed word, he suffers withdrawal pangs. Sadd reads anywhere and everywhere. He reads in the bathroom, in the car, at meals, at parties, sometimes all night, often while sitting before the television, and he always brings a book to church, declaring it's the only way he can survive the sermon. I cannot imagine a place or occasion that would find him without something to read. Sadd will bring a book to Judgment Day.
He was without one now.
I lay considering this phenomenon, then said, "What time is it?"
He got up and came to the bed. "One o'clock. Your lunch tray came and went."
"Not hungry. My stomach still hurts."
"A nurse came in with a pill for that while you were under." Sadd pulled a chair to the bed. "Also the doctor who set your ankle. They'll both be back. How do you feel generally?"
"Somewhat better." I struggled to a sitting position. "Sadd, you have got to get some rest. Where are you staying?"
"Leave out got. Have to get some rest. Henry and Tina insisted I stay at Nice Ugly."
It was thus they had christened a nondescript old house in Brooklyn Heights that they'd renovated and made comfortable, if not beautiful.
"Paula's there too," Sadd added.
I shook my head glumly. "She has got—and I'm keeping this got—got to go back to Boston. Poor Andy!"
"He was all for packing up the kids and coming too."
I groaned. "This is awful. And at Christmas, too! I hate whoever did this to us. It can't have been anybody at the party—they were all Sal's friends and mine. The bastard must have followed his victim down to the Village and into the store."
"His victim? Poisoners are more often women, I believe."
I shrugged. "The point is—my God, Sadd—who was the stuff meant for?"
He said nothing, and I thrashed impatiently, receiving a sharp warning from my ankle. "Ouch! Damn! Oh, why couldn't I have had flu or something and missed Sal's opening? This is such a downer for her, and she's been so happy about the store and—and everything."
"Everything meaning what's-his-name?"
"Yes. Dwight Dunlop. Nice guy."
Sal, who had been a widow for as long as I, had met a pleasant widower her age at a small-business seminar at Cooper Union. They'd been married the week before.
"And I'll bet that in some crazy way"—I thrashed again—"she and Dwight are probably blaming themselves for this."
"Yes, they are." Sadd stood up. "They are also out in the hall champing to come in."
"Really?" Delighted, I reached for the bed jacket. "Remind me to thank her for this. Where's the sleeve? There's everything on here but feathers."
"You're sure you're up to seeing them?" Sadd started toward the door.
"Of course I'm sure." I adjusted the lacy collar. "But I wish we had something to drink. They tell me in hospitals now you're allowed—"
"Have no fear." Sadd grinned. "Dwight's come well supplied—and with Dr. Cullen's permission as well."
And the next minute I was being smothered with hugs, heaped with flowers and candy, plied with champagne, and repeatedly asked if I could ever forgive them.
"Are you both insane?" I laughed and sipped happily. "Anybody would think you were responsible."
"Sal feels as if we are." Dwight Dunlop was a big, very personable man with a penchant for ribald jokes which he told extremely well. "If you hadn't come to our opening—"
"Rubbish." I kissed Sal as she hung over me, her kind, humorous face full of concern.
"Oh, Clara, this is too ghastly. Who could have done such a thing to you? I hope the police are working night and day."
"Police?" I looked at Sadd in alarm. He shook his head.
"No police." He refilled my glass. "You see, Clara believes that she was merely an accidental victim and the poison was intended for somebody else."
"Of course it was." I said. "I'm sorry for the poor thing who was supposed to get it—I hope it isn't anybody we know, Sal—but it certainly wasn't me. Marvelous champagne."
They looked at each other—oddly, I thought—then Dwight shrugged and Sal said, "You haven't had one of your ... er ... cases lately that might involve somebody who ...?
I laughed and sipped. This was the right medicine. "I haven't had a 'case,' as you put it, in over a year. My life has been bland and blameless. All I've done is play grandma and volunteer at the museum. By the way, thanks for the bed jacket. I feel like Jean Harlow."
"What?" Sal stared at me. "Oh—well, it's awfully frilly, but I had to grab it fast."
Dwight said, "Look what we brought you," and dumped a tote full of paperbacks on my bed.
"You angels!" I cried.
"And here's the fall issue of The Armchair Detective"—Sal reached into another bag—"and a first edition of L. P. Hartley's stories, and The Rumpole Omnibus."
"I was going to save the Hartley for your birthday but—but nothing's too good for you now."
She bit her lip and gulped, and Dwight looked at her anxiously.
"Will you please quit that?" I said. "I'll be out of here in a couple of days and—"
"—and on a plane to Florida with me," said Sadd.
"Now you're talking!" Dwight was his jovial self again.
"Well, we'll see about Florida." I was feeling very mellow. "I sort of hate to spend Christmas away from the kids. Now, how's business, and who's minding the store?"
Sal and Dwight both started to talk at once, and it was lovely and garbled and enthusiastic. There had been seventy—count 'em—seventy persons in already that day, sales had been brisk, and telephone orders above expectation. There was to be an article about them in some magazine and ... I was conscious of growing tired. Sal sensed it at once.
"We're going." She stood up. "If I can get in again—"
"Don't you dare," I said. "You stay in that store and make money."
She leaned over and hugged me hard. "Take care of your dear, darling self."
I simply could not fathom this emotional parting. Dwight said, "Chin up!" and Sadd went out with them. I lay wondering what on earth ...
Sadd came back and stood looking out the window. He said, "It's snowing. I haven't seen snow in five years."
I poured myself the last of the champagne and said, "Sadd, what's bugging everybody? Am I in worse shape than I've been told?"
"No, you're in good shape actually." He turned. "You're going to be fine."
"Then why is everybody acting like—"
"Acting as if. Clara, really, that is the most deplorable—"
"Oh, for God's sake, tell me what's wrong!" I pulled off the bed jacket, which was tickling my chin unbearably. "Why is everybody acting as if I'm in mortal danger?"
Excerpted from Pushing Murder by Eleanor Boylan. Copyright © 1993 Eleanor Boylan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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