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Sharon Pickard stepped past the unhung Christmas decorations lying on the floor of the nurses' lounge and hoped that the joy of the season would rub off on the dour-faced detective who'd shown up at the emergency room and asked to see her. He was wide and muscular and had a shaven head. But most formidable of all were his probing black eyes that made it difficult for Sharon to maintain a friendly smile on her own face. Well, intimidating or not, she had no choice but to speak to the police this afternoon. Someone had committed a serious crime yesterday, and she was partly involved.
At least, around the edges.
She pushed a cardboard box full of Christmas tree ornaments sideways on an old vinyl upholstered sofa to make room for the big man, and then read the business card he had handed her. Special Agent Tyrone C. Keefe, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
"We'll have to keep this discussion brief, Agent Keefe." She sat down on the top step of a stubby wooden stepladder that someone had used to hang decorations on the artificial Christmas tree in the corner. "I go back on duty at one o'clock. We'll have the lounge to ourselves until then. The other off-duty nurses are at lunch."
He scowled at his watch. "I'm investigating an attempted murder, Ms. Pickard. Twenty minutes may not be enough time for you to answer all of my questions." His skeptical tone seemed to demand a more detailed explanation from her.
"Glory, North Carolina is a small town," she said quickly, "and Glory Regional Hospital has limited resources. I'm the only nurse on staff with hands-on experience treating acute cardio-glycoside poisoning."
"Really?" His dark eyes zeroed in on her. "How did you acquire your expertise, Ms. Pickard?"
She grasped her mistake at once. Her offhand remark revealed that she had the specific know-how to kill people with oleander.
Now he'll consider me the prime suspect.
Her heart began to thud. She felt uneasymuch like when a police car appeared in her rearview mirror then zipped past her on the highway.
The last thing a nurse needs is a reputation as a poisoner. "Ten years ago I took part in a three-month medical mission to Sri Lanka, the island nation in the Indian Ocean that used to be called Ceylon."
He gave a quick nod. "Go on."
"I worked in a rural hospital that routinely treated people for oleander poisoning. Chewing oleander seeds is a popular way to commit suicide in Sri Lanka."
"Is that what happened to Andrew Ballantine at the tea party? Did someone feed him a handful of oleander seeds?"
"Probably not. Every part of an oleander plant is full of heart-stopping toxin. It's simple to make a lethal infusion by soaking leaves, stems or seeds in boiling water."
"And I suppose it would have been equally simple for someone to add a few spoonfuls of oleander broth to the unusual dessert Mr. Ballantine ate yesterday afternoon at The Scottish Captain." He made an indistinct gesture. "I forget its name."
"Strathbogie Mist," she said. "Crushed pears topped with ginger-flavored whipped cream. Served chilled, of course."
"Of course." He smirked wryly. "We're fairly certain that the Strathbogie Mist you served Mr. Ballantine contained the poison he ingested. We'll be entirely certain when our forensic laboratory finishes testing the ah, ramekins that held the dessert. However, your pear concoction appears to be the only item he ate that came in an individual serving."
His high-powered gaze impelled her to turn away. It was probably a technique he'd perfected over the years to encourage people to tell him the truth. She focused for a while on the battered Coke machine in the corner and prayed he didn't sense her blood beginning to boil. How dare he even suggest that she'd poisoned Andrew?
"For your information, Agent Keefe," she retorted, "I didn't serve Andrew Ballantine anything. The helpings of Strathbogie Mist were set out on a buffet tablein The Scottish Captain's backyard gazebo."
"And you know that because ?"
"I put them on the table." She looked Agent Keefe directly in the eyes to convince him she was telling the truth. "I made the dessert yesterday, a few hours before the tea party began. I crushed the pears, I whipped the cream, I even filled the ramekins." She took a quick breath. "But despite your heavy-handed insinuation, I didn't lace Andrew's portion with oleandrin."
"The poisonous toxin in oleanderthe cardiac glycoside that nearly switched off his heart."
Agent Keefe smirked again. "You think I'm heavy-handed, Ms. Pickard? Look at the crime from my vantage point. You had the best opportunity to poison Mr. Ballantine, along with easy access to the toxin. There's an oleander bush in the Captain's back garden, less than twenty feet away from the kitchen door."
Sharon murmured a silent thank-you that Emma Neilson, the owner of The Scottish Captain, had married Glory's Deputy Chief of Police. Early that Monday morning, Rafe Neilson had telephoned Sharon to explain that he'd requested assistance from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. "I had no choice," he'd said. "It would be highly inappropriate for me to investigate an intentional poisoning at my wife's B and B."
Rafe had continued. "The NCSBI is sending Ty Keefe to conduct the interviews. He's smart, experienced and an expert at spotting evasion, so be totally open with him. Don't even think about lying."
With Rafe's safe advice fresh in her mind, Sharon took a moment to frame a response to Agent Keefe's near-accusation. "Why would I want to poison Andrew Ballantine? He was a complete stranger to me when he walked into the gazebo. He lives in Asheville, on the other side of North Carolina."
"I was going to ask you about that." Keefe gazed at her once again with an intensity she could almost feel. "Two other people who went to the tea party told me that you latched on to Mr. Ballantine like he was an old friendthat you barely spoke with anyone else."
Sharon felt herself blush. "At first we talked about Glory Community Church. He'd spent two hours on Sunday afternoon inside the sanctuary looking at the stained-glass windows. He had several questions about the church and Pastor Hartman. After I answered them, we discussed our shared interests, like Scotland and the Scots. The time flew by."
"Until he collapsed in a heap."
She nodded. "Oleandrin often triggers bradycardia, a dangerously low pulse rate. Andrew became pale, said he was feeling nauseated, and then fainted. I called the paramedics. Emma Neilson folded a tablecloth into a makeshift pillow to help make Andrew comfortable. One of the guests at the B and B Haley Carroll, a physicianworked on him until the ambulance arrived."
"And once at the hospital Mr. Ballantine received some kind of high-tech antidote?"
Sharon answered with an ambiguous shrug. Agent Keefe must've known that she couldn't voluntarily provide specific details about Andrew's treatment to the police, although there wasn't much to keep private. Andrew's overnight stay in the E.R. was a simple tale with a happy ending. The "high-tech antidote" for oleandrin poisoning was antidigoxin antibodies a therapy originally developed to treat digitalis overdoses. Five vials helicoptered to Glory from Duke Medical Center in Durham had worked well for Andrew.
Ken Lehman, the lead emergency room physician at Glory Regional had also followed the "old fashioned" treatment protocol throughout the night: He encouraged Andrew to throw up, treated his various cardiac symptoms as they appeared, and gave him multiple doses of activated charcoal to absorb the oleandrin left in his system.
Agent Keefe retrieved a small notebook from his jacket pocket. "Tell me what happened yesterday from the beginningwhen you arrived at The Scottish Captain. I'm curious why an emergency room nurse would spend her day off cooking a Scottish dessert in a local B and B."
"Two months ago an electrical fire in the sanctuary of Glory Community Church destroyed one of the church's stained-glass windows," Sharon explained. "The Window Restoration Committee was organized to oversee the window's replacement. I'm the Chair of the WinReC, as we've come to be called."
"And the members decided to hire Andrew Ballantine to act as your stained-glass window guru," Keefe interrupted. "I interviewed Emma Neilson this morning. I know that she's also a member of the committee and that she agreed to host a welcoming tea party for Mr. Ballantine in the Captain's garden gazebo." He leaned against the sofa. "Let's get back to you."
"I offered to pitch in because Emma is the best friend I have in Glory."
Sharon peered sideways at Agent Keefe. He seemed to accept her statement without any questions. Good. She didn't want to have to explain the details of her friendship with Emma to the nosy detective.
They'd met the previous March when Sharon, who sang alto, had joined the choir at Glory Community Church. Emma, a soprano, had recently returned from her honeymoon with Rafe. Sharon and Emma quickly discovered the many other things in addition to good voices they had in commonfrom a love of women's softball, to a dislike of church politics, to the painful fact that both had moved to Glory from big cities to escape the stress of messy divorces from unfaithful men.
Stress was the key word. Shedding her husband of six years, starting a new job and moving from Raleigh to Glory had filled her days with "stress points" a year earlier. Blessedly, her new life in Glory now seemed more or less normalbut here was Agent Keefe, trying his best to crank up the pressure.
He would never understand, but filling her free Sunday with busy work had been a fair trade. Helping out in the Captain's kitchen had benefited Emma. But equally important, enjoying a productive Sunday with a friend at The Scottish Captain had softened the reality that she would go through another Christmas season alone.
"Anyway," Sharon said, "I arrived at the Captain at one o'clock and began making the Strathbogie Mist. I also worked with Calvin Constable, the Captain's breakfast chef, to prepare the scones and tea cakes."
"In other words, you spent the afternoon in the kitchen?"
She thought about this. "Except for two ten-minute breaks when I helped Emma greet arriving guests, starting with the Dickensonsa couple from Pennsylvania. She's a dentist, he's a lawyer."
Sharon wondered if she should share her other routine observationsthat Samuel and Theodora Dickenson were a well-tanned, healthy-looking duo: she a lean woman with caramel-colored hair; he somewhat chubbier with ashen hair and a trim brown goatee.
No need. Agent Keefe undoubtedly spoke to them this morning, too.
"Next, I met the Carrolls, from Wilson, North Carolina," she said. Haley Carrollan anesthesiologistwas a round-faced redhead, while Michael Carrollan accountantwas a rangy, mostly nondescript man with an unusually large nose.
Agent Keefe flipped a page in his notebook. "One other guest arrived on Sunday afternoon. A Mrs. Amanda Turner."
"She checked in while I was cooking. Emma showed her through the kitchen when I was putting away the mixing bowls I'd used." Sharon recalled that Emma hadn't looked especially happy when she led the fortyish, full-figured woman with brassy blond hair through the kitchen's swinging door.
"This is Amanda Turner," Emma had said with a noticeably strained smile. "Amanda hails from Birmingham, Alabama. She recently purchased The Robert Burns Inn, the B and B on Campbell Street. She's staying with us until the painters and carpet layers finish redecorating the guest rooms."
"They promised to be done by Wednesday," Amanda drawled, "but I almost don't care, because I know I'm going to enjoy my stay here. The Captain is so lovely, and now I have a chance to see every last inch of the building."
Sharon had instantly understood Emma's hesitation. She wasn't thrilled to give a future competitor a comprehensive tour of The Scottish Captain, but she could hardly refuse, because Amanda was a legitimate paying customer.
Agent Keefe clicked his ballpoint pen then jotted a few words. "How many portions of Strathbogie Mist did you make for the tea party?"
"Completely. I filled two dozen six-ounce ceramic ramekins."
"When did you finish?"
"About three o'clock."
Keefe made a noncommittal grunt. "What were you wearing when you prepared the dessert?"
The sudden shift in topic startled Sharon. "I beg your pardon. What difference does my clothing make?"
"You wore some sort of pants suit to the tea party. I doubt you worked in the kitchen dressed like that. Where did you leave the puddings when you went home to change?"
She fought back a snicker. "Some sort of pants suit" was made of dark green Dupioni silk, had cost the better part of a month's salary, and accentuated the best aspects of her figure. It was her Christmas gift to herself this year. She'd seen it at the Glorious Boutique on Main Street and had straight away given in to temptation. Well, why even try to resist? She had no one in her life to buy expensive presents forand no one to buy them for her.
And no one to tell me blatant lies about business meetings that take all evening
"Actually, Agent Keefe, I dressed for the tea party in Emma and Rafe Neilson's bedroombut I see where you're going. In fact, the ramekins were never left alone during the afternoon. You can check with Calvin Constable, but I believe he kept working in the kitchen when I went upstairs to change."
"I did check with Mr. Constable," Keefe confirmed. "When did you move the desserts to the gazebo?"
"About a quarter to four. Calvin and I used a kitchen cart to wheel all the goodies from the kitchen through the garden. We took turns carrying dishes up the gazebo's front steps. We were ready for guests a few minutes before four."
"Just in time for you to meet Andrew Ballantine."
Sharon hoped that her face didn't reveal her confused emotions. Everything had happened so quickly and she had spent most of the night in the emergency room doing what was necessary to keep him alive. She and Ken Lehman had worked together in an E.R. resuscitation bay, equipped with patient monitors and a defibrillator in the event they had to restart Andrew's heart.
Sometime during the evening her own heart had restarted. She realized that she no longer saw him as a "consultant" or even as a "patient." And to her great surprise she'd stopped worrying about Andrew's trustworthiness. He'd made a wondrous first impression on her, although she wasn't sure how he managed to do it. She had prayed during every step of the treatment they'd administered, surprised at the depth of her affection for Andrew that had intensified as she worked to maintain his steady heartbeat. She'd reminded herself over and over again that she'd met him the previous afternoon, that they'd spoken for only an hour, that she knew almost nothing about his personal lifeother than he'd grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee, traveled far and wide to do his job, and saw himself as a confirmed bachelor. But biographic details seemed less important than the chief thing she didn't knowhow Andrew felt about her.
Stop acting like a harebrained sixteen-year-old. You're on the verge of making a fool of yourself.