Young, overworked medical intern Sarah James has no time for sleuthing. Her elderly neighbors, the spunky Fog Ladies, have nothing but time. When, one by one, old ladies die in their elegant apartment building in San Francisco, Sarah assumes it is the natural consequence of growing old. The Fog Ladies assume murder.
Mrs. Bridge falls off a stool cleaning bugs out of her kitchen light. Mrs. Talwin hits her head in the bathtub and drowns. Suddenly, the Pacific Heights building is turning over tenants faster than the fog rolls in on a cool San Francisco evening.
Sarah resists the Fog Ladies' perseverations. But when one of them falls down the stairs and tells Sarah she was pushed, even Sarah believes evil lurks in their building. Can they find the killer before they fall victim themselves?
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"Did you hear about Mrs. Bridge?"
Sarah James was barely inside the laundry room when the older woman spoke. Enid Carmichael eyed her with relish, and Sarah knew she hoped to be the first to impart the news.
Sarah sighed. She was a medical intern in a busy teaching hospital. She did not want to waste her one day off listening to Mrs. Carmichael gossip. Especially about Muriel Bridge, who rarely said a kind word about anyone or anything. She lived across the hall, and they saw each other frequently. Instead of "hello," her usual greeting was, "You left your laundry in the washing machine for over four hours yesterday. Have some consideration for others."
Sarah set her clothes basket on the green and white tile counter. The laundry room was off the garage in the basement, and though it was a tiny space, it was charming, with Spanish style terracotta floor tiles and a dark wooden bench. The room's size forced the two women to stand close together.
Sarah stared defiantly up at Mrs. Carmichael. The older woman loomed over Sarah's five feet eight inches. Mrs. Carmichael stood over six feet tall and still wore high heels. This morning a pink turban covered most of her dyed red hair. Her lipstick was smudged, as always.
"Mrs. Bridge? What about Mrs. Bridge?"
"Dead? What do you mean dead?"
Sarah dropped onto the bench near the counter. Here she was, thinking mean thoughts about Mrs. Bridge, and she was dead. But how could she be dead? She couldn't be more than sixty-five. A lot younger than most of the other women in the building. Mrs. Carmichael here was eighty. And Mrs. Bridge seemed healthy. Sarah looked at Mrs. Carmichael's leathery neck.
The old woman coughed wetly. "She fell in her kitchen. Tommy found her this morning."
"Tommy found her? What was Tommy doing there?"
"He went to clean bugs out of her light. She asked him yesterday. When she didn't answer the door, he let himself in. She was on the kitchen floor. Fell off a stool. Head cracked open."
Mrs. Carmichael seemed to be enjoying this, going on and on about the details of the accident. Sarah felt nauseated. She had recently finished a trauma rotation. She knew what people looked like with their "heads cracked open." She tried to concentrate. "Mrs. Carmichael, I'm sorry. I missed what you said."
Mrs. Carmichael regarded her sternly. "I was saying that Mrs. Barker said she didn't know how long she'd been there. Tommy saw her yesterday morning, but she didn't know if anyone had seen her after that. Tommy took care of calling the ambulance. Mrs. Barker was pretty shook up."
Sarah could certainly understand that. Mrs. Barker, the landlady, was so squeamish she turned away when Sarah cut her finger opening a package in the lobby.
"I saw Mrs. Bridge last night," she told Mrs. Carmichael. "She was putting her garbage down the chute when I came home."
Mrs. Carmichael gathered her laundry, placing the folded stacks into a large pink plastic basket. "Then you may have been the last to see her."
Mrs. Carmichael went on. "I expect Mrs. Barker will let us know about the services. She called Mrs. Bridge's sister this morning, and she's flying here from Arizona tomorrow."
Mrs. Carmichael clasped her basket against her pink housecoat. "Seems like all I do these days is go to funerals. Mrs. Glenn, Mrs. Talwin. Now Mrs. Bridge." She sighed and turned to leave. "I guess that's the price of growing old." She gazed back over her shoulder at Sarah as she left. "A young thing like you wouldn't know about funerals."
But Sarah did. Her parents both died young. She saw death at the hospital, not only on the trauma rotation or in the ICU but all those quiet deaths when patients were "DNR" or "Do Not Resuscitate." She knew about funerals.
But Muriel Bridge? Somehow her nasty comments and negative personality made her seem invincible. Just last night, from the garbage chute, she had called out to Sarah, "If you must use a blow dryer, could you at least wash your hair at night instead of in the morning?"
Sarah wondered if these were her last words.CHAPTER 2
Frances Noonan had lived in the building almost fifty years and she had seen a lot of tenants come and go. Usually they left via the front door with a moving van, but not recently. First Mrs. Glenn with her colon cancer. What a distressing time. So much turmoil it seemed more recent, yet it had been two years. Then Mrs. Talwin, three months ago in November. Fell in the bathtub on bubbles that were too slippery. But she had been eighty, after all. Mrs. Bridge was much younger. Younger than Frances herself, though that wasn't saying much.
The last apartment tenant to leave the traditional way was the doctor-in-training from Pennsylvania. The hospital had an apartment in the building, and every three years a new young resident moved in. She didn't feel she knew the Pennsylvania doctor very well. He rarely took her up on her offers of cookies or pie. He was busy with the hospital and his girlfriend. It was understandable. He never integrated into the building.
Not like Sarah. She got the hospital's apartment when Pennsylvania Doctor graduated from the program and moved out. Mrs. Noonan met Sarah her first week of internship, seven months ago, when Sarah was on call overnight on the Fourth of July.
That summer day, Mrs. Noonan had stepped outside to read her mail in the waning sunshine because the lobby light was too dim for her eyes. The girl stood on the front steps, staring blankly forward with green, bloodshot eyes. She didn't seem to register that Mrs. Noonan was there. Mrs. Noonan knew who she must be. Every three years that apartment turned over to a new, stunned doctor. The interns were full-fledged physicians, done with four years of medical school and here for more specialized training, but these new MDs never felt fully capable in the beginning. They all had the same vacant expression the first week. The hospital took its toll.
The young doctor had never been a woman, though. Mrs. Noonan felt a pang. Her daughter, Isabelle, died when she was little. Seeing this young girl looking so lost brought up memories. Mrs. Noonan sometimes imagined what her daughter would be like as a young woman. Before her husband died, she and Bill marked each of Isabelle's birthdays with a celebration of her short life, but they stopped counting her age after twenty-five. Mrs. Noonan always pictured her about the age of this young doctor.
Mrs. Noonan cleared the lump in her throat. She stuck out her hand and said as cheerily as she could, "You're new here, aren't you? I'm Frances Noonan. I live in 5-A."
"Very nice to meet you. I'm Sarah James. 3-C." The girl looked like she could fall over right there from exhaustion. Her hand felt hot and sticky in Frances Noonan's dry, cool one. Her skin was pale, making the shadows under her eyes very noticeable. Her long, black hair stuck out every which way and her clothes were rumpled.
"You're probably still getting settled," Mrs. Noonan said. "I made a batch of lasagna today and have plenty. Far too much for me. Would you like some?"
She saw the girl relax. Sarah later told her that the hospital's benefits included this subsidized apartment and also free food at the hospital, but she had been so anxious to leave that day, she'd forgotten. She was trying to decide whether to find takeout food or just eat Cheerios for dinner when Mrs. Noonan stepped in.
Cheerios, indeed. Mrs. Noonan would not have a dedicated doctor-in-training eating Cheerios for dinner. Not on her watch.
She and Sarah rode the elevator up to the fifth floor. As Mrs. Noonan pulled the lasagna out of the refrigerator, she saw Sarah slump in the doorway. "You know, dear, you could eat it here. I could fix it up in a jiffy."
The girl jumped. Tears formed in her eyes, and she blinked them back.
"Maybe you'd like to sit down." Mrs. Noonan hastily guided her to the kitchen table.
They sat together looking out the window at the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, where a wisp of fog obscured the two red-orange pointy bridge towers. Mrs. Noonan had calmed herself with this serene view many times after her husband died. She waited quietly. She gathered the girl had not had picnics and fireworks for her Fourth.
"One of my patients had a heart attack. He joked with me that he had two mongrels at home and he didn't trust his neighbor to feed them so he needed to be 'fixed up in a jiffy.'"
Mrs. Noonan nodded. She could see where this was going.
Sarah continued. "I helped him undress in the emergency department, and dog treats fell out of both his pockets. He told me he was a sucker for sad eyes and showed me a picture of his dogs, two huge, fluffy things with him in the middle. Then his heart stopped."
Sarah's voice cracked and Mrs. Noonan waited for her to compose herself.
"You don't want to hear all this," Sarah said.
"My dear, if you want to talk about it, I am very happy to listen." Bill taught her this. Just listen.
Sarah nodded and took a breath. "The team started CPR, and I did the chest compressions. His ribs were so thin ... I felt one crack with my first push. The senior resident said you always break a few. We used the defibrillator to try to start his heart again. The fireworks were going off outside, with all their booms, and this man was getting our shocks."
Sarah's body twitched and jumped, as if she were getting the shocks herself. Mrs. Noonan rested her hand on Sarah's and let her talk. Her husband had been a policeman. She had done this before.
"He died," Sarah said. "We couldn't bring him back to life. We couldn't save him." Sarah's voice dropped to a whisper. "His dogs ... they'll be wondering when he'll be back."
Mrs. Noonan's lip quivered, and she bit it to make it stop. Her cat, Camouflage, was settled between them and his fur tickled her legs. What if she wasn't there for his treats?
"Peppermint tea," she announced, and pushed herself up, slowly like she always did because of her sore hip.
"Everything is so rushed," Sarah continued. "This man died, then a teenage girl came in who was hit by a stray bullet, someone firing in the air. Then a cancer patient with a fever. Then someone with diabetes who couldn't stop vomiting and she threw up on me."
The girl was on a roll now. "I don't know the forms, I'm still learning the computer system, my pager goes off so many times I have to keep clearing the memory. And I haven't showered and these are yesterday's clothes and I don't even know where the bathroom is."
Mrs. Noonan was exhausted just listening. She sipped her peppermint tea and wondered how people got through what they had to get through. She and Sarah ate their lasagna and some fresh peas Mrs. Noonan had shucked that morning. She could tell Sarah felt better. Mrs. Noonan had peach cobbler as well, and a new carton of ice cream she kept for the cat. When Sarah finally went home, she looked happy and sleepy. Mrs. Noonan sent her with an extra plate of lasagna for the next day.
In the seven months since, Mrs. Noonan had eaten many meals with Sarah. The young woman had found her way at the hospital and even offered suggestions for Mrs. Noonan's bad hip, though her best advice, hip replacement, was not something Mrs. Noonan was remotely contemplating. Bill never had surgery, not even when he dislocated his shoulder over and over. Bill's shoulder bothered him more as he got older, but that was better than surgery, he always said. Surgery was one thing for the young, quite another for a seventy-five-year-old. But she appreciated Sarah's thoughtfulness.
Just as Sarah was thoughtful now in the delicate but straightforward way she'd delivered the news, once she sat Mrs. Noonan down on the sofa. Muriel Bridge had fallen in her kitchen and unfortunately had died.
Muriel Bridge. Dead from a fall. And she had two good hips.CHAPTER 3
Sarah went to Muriel Bridge's funeral because of Mrs. Noonan. Frances Noonan had a gentle, calm way, yet was fun and full of stories, just like she had soft, silvery hair and twinkly blue eyes the same color Sarah's mother's had been.
And could she cook! She cooked as if she was feeding a family of teenage boys, yet it was just herself. Sarah had eaten many meals with Mrs. Noonan, and that's how Sarah knew she was not alone in her dislike of Muriel Bridge. Mrs. Noonan told her Muriel criticized Tommy's neglect of the roof deck railing, saying he'd never amount to anything more than a handyman, so he'd better start taking the job more seriously. She taunted Mr. Glenn, a widower on the second floor, because he "went to hell in a hand basket since his wife died, and he wasn't all that great shakes to start with anyway."
"Muriel changed," Mrs. Noonan once said. "She used to be fun, vivacious, a real fireball. She was always outspoken, but now she's just plain mean. She seems to take pleasure in antagonizing people. I've told her to put a filter on, watch her words. People can only take so much nastiness. She'd better be careful or someone will decide they've had enough."
Despite all this, Sarah was unprepared for the ferocity of Mrs. Noonan's statement the day of the funeral. "Mr. Glenn hated that woman and it wouldn't surprise me to learn he'd kicked the stool out from under her himself."
Sarah looked around at the funeral hall for Mr. Glenn. The hall wasn't large, and the heavy burgundy velvet drapes on either end made Sarah feel closed in. She looked again. Mr. Glenn was not in the room.
The ladies were all there, though. The Fog Ladies. Six women — now five. They played gin rummy on Mondays and Fridays, volunteered at the hospital, and kept each other company. Mrs. Noonan told Sarah you could count on them like you could count on early morning fog. Every morning Sarah heard the weather report on the radio and every morning it was the same — early morning fog burning off by midday. Sarah started to think of the group of women as the Fog Ladies. She told this to Mrs. Noonan who loved the name and promptly told the ladies. From then on they were the Fog Ladies.
This was the first funeral for one of the Fog Ladies. Sarah saw them clustered in the back of the room. As she walked over, Frances Noonan lowered herself onto an uncomfortable looking chair. Sarah winced and wished she could take that hip pain away. Enid Carmichael towered over her, her red hair clashing with her red suit, an odd choice for a funeral, but not for Mrs. Carmichael.
Alma Gordon gave Sarah a sad smile. She looked so small, especially standing next to Mrs. Carmichael. She wore pale blue, which looked lovely against her fluff of white hair. She smelled like lilacs, as always. Her gentle face tilted up toward the garishly made up red head. What a contrast, Sarah thought, in appearance and personality.
Mrs. Gordon spoke softly. "Why did this happen? What was she doing up on that stool?"
Olivia Honeycut moved closer to Mrs. Gordon, shuffling with her walker. She was the only Fog Lady who didn't live in the building, but a few blocks away. She leaned over and waved her finger. "Don't you see?" she said, her voice low and raspy as it always was. "This isn't right. She was the youngest of the bunch of us. She had great balance. Remember when she climbed on my counter to get the pitcher from the cupboard when my son-in-law put it too high? She didn't have any problem. Something's not right here."
"Olivia Honeycut, you say that about everything." Harriet Flynn, the final Fog Lady, had a mouth permanently pursed in distaste. She was skinny and wore a serviceable but ugly brown suit. "We have to accept things. It's God's will." Sarah had heard about God's will from Mrs. Flynn before, most recently when she seemed unperturbed by a fallen bird's egg Sarah showed her in front of the building.
"Poppycock." Mrs. Carmichael spat a little on Mrs. Noonan sitting beneath her. "It's not God's will. It's old age. Mrs. Bridge wasn't young. None of us are young. She wasn't as steady as you think. That's why we have that loose railing on the roof deck. She fell against it and knocked it loose. Mrs. Barker told me."
"That roof scared me even before the railing was loose," Mrs. Gordon said.
"Thank the Lord she didn't fall off," said Mrs. Noonan. "I won't go up there until it's fixed. I'm not that steady myself. Remember when I tripped in her kitchen and landed in her chili? I think that's the last time she had us over for dinner."
"She told me you should have paid for a new dishtowel at least. You ruined hers cleaning it up," said Mrs. Carmichael. Sarah remembered Muriel Bridge telling her the same thing.
"She makes great chili," Mrs. Gordon piped in with a smile.
"Made," said Mrs. Carmichael. Mrs. Gordon's smile evaporated.
"I could never eat her chili," sighed Mrs. Honeycut. "Far too spicy."
"Well," said Mrs. Noonan, "I always thought it tasted delicious. She put those green peppers in it. Mmm-mmm. I can't believe we'll never have it again."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fog Ladies"
Copyright © 2019 Susan McCormick.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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