If I recall aright, I wrote this for special something-or-the-other my publisher was laying on. The only place you can find it online now is at my website, where it's mistakenly labelled "An Excerpt from..." which has led to many justly confused readers emailing me.
What I tried to do in this story was write an inverted locked room mystery - in this case, all the detectives are in one enclosed space. A very small space, indeed - two diner tables shoved together. You can read it and see if I succeeded.
Collect for a Noonday Service
Wednesday lunch at the Kreemie Kakes diner. The special will be meatloaf and twice-baked potatoes. Free refills on coffee. The first doughnuts of the morning will be boxed up and waiting to go for half-price on the counter next to the cash register. Pie, according to season; rhubarb, strawberry, apple, pumpkin. The pie’s homemade but the whipped cream comes out of a tub.
And the rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church will be sitting in one of the window booths with the Millers Kill Chief of Police.
Not each and every Wednesday; once in a while, like the pie, they’re missing from the menu. But those Wednesdays she doesn’t see them, waitress Earla Davis always worries, because she knows it means something’s gone wrong: an accident, maybe, keeping the chief, or someone in the hospital needing the reverend.
She doesn’t pay any mind to the talk about them. Well, she doesn’t need to, she sees them most every week, sees how they talk and laugh and how they look at one another when they forget to be talking and laughing. But Chief Van Alstyne, he’s a good tipper, and Reverend Fergusson looks her straight in the eye and says please and thank you for every water refill and napkin, and to Earla, that tells a lot about folks.
So when Reverend Fergusson enters through the foyer with a puff of cold air and a red maple leaf hanging off her hair, Earla doesn’t say what she would’of to her own grown daughter: You’re too pretty and too smart to be settling for once-a-week lunch with a man who won’t never leave his wife, dear.
Instead, she waves the reverend to her usual station on the wide crimson banquette running the length of the diner. “I’ll bring you a coffee while you wait,” she says.
Clare shucks her parka and sits with her back to the window, her face to the door. The October wind is pushing people along their lunchtime errands: a deposit at AllBanc, a prescription at the Rite-All, books to the library. If she turns her head, she can see blue sky, October blue, the perfect moment between summer haze and winter snow, framed by leaves the color of sunshine and fire.
“Reverend Fergusson.” Her head whips around at her name. Jim Cameron, the mayor, is pulling out one of the chairs opposite her. He drops a folder onto the formica table and sits down. “How are you?”
He raises a hand. “I won’t interrupt your meal. I just need to touch base with Russ.” He leans forward. “How is everything at St. Alban’s? Any more Sunday parking problems?” Tick Soley, whose lot they had rented for decades, dropped dead mowing his lawn on Labor Day, and St. Alban’s had been shut out of the lot while they wrangled over a new and more expensive rate with Soley’s son and heir. Cameron sounds as if he’s willing to valet park if they need him. For a politician with only eight thousand constituents, he works it hard.
“No, it’s fine,” she says. “We got things sorted out.” Her brain finally catches up with his earlier statement. She glances toward the diner’s door. “You’re here to see Chief Van Alstyne?”
“It’s Wednesday.” Cameron leans back in his chair, catches Earla’s eye. “Can I get a Coke?” He turns back to Clare. “Easier to catch him here than to try to track him down on while he’s patrolling.”
Clare digests this while Earla brings over a coke, a coffee, and three plastic menus. “Oh, I’m not staying,” Cameron says as he picks the menu up and scans the offerings.
Outside the glass and aluminum door, two large shapes are jostling. She catches a flash of brown, MKPD-issue parka behind the blocky, gold-painted EIMEERK SEKAK RENID. The outside door swings open and the tiny glass foyer is jammed with male until the inner door opens and Russ Van Alstyne comes in. For a moment, he seems to fill the room with uniform and hunting boots, shaggy hair, a look in his eyes just a little too intimate for such a public place. Behind him is one of the few men in town who can dwarf him, Paul Foubert. The Infirmary director bumps Russ forward, a big bear whose gray wool Chesterfield and luxurious beard give him the look of an oversized Sebastian Cabot.
“There you are, m’dear!” Foubert’s voice is a big as he is. Several patrons twist in their chairs to see who he’s talking to. “I was going over to the church and then I realized, she’s not going to be there on a Wednesday afternoon.” He squeezes between two tables and lowers himself onto the banquette next to her. “I want to float an idea past you.” He snags Earla as she leans in to drop another menu on the table. “Cup of tea, please. No, make it a pot. I can still get a pot, can’t I?”
“You sure can,” Earla says.
Russ drapes his nylon parka over the back of his chair and sits down. He gives her a complicated smile that takes in their lack of privacy, and the knowledge that it doesn’t matter, really, because privacy is an indulgence they can’t afford. “Reverend Fergusson.”
“Chief Van Alstyne.” She smiles back. The name she calls him in the inside of her head she never speaks aloud.
Jim.” He nods to the mayor. “What are you doing here? Do you know Paul Foubert?”
“Of course I do.” Cameron doesn’t give his first-rate smile to Foubert, perhaps because the Infirmary consumes town resources rather than adding to its coffers. “Look, the roadworks building’s been broken into and vandalized again.”
Russ raises his eyebrows. “When?”
“Emory McFarland called me an hour ago.”
Russ blows out a breath of frustration. “He’s supposed to call us, not you. Last time the damn fool washed away any possible evidence before we ever got there.”
“This happened before?” Clare can’t help it, the question pops out.
“About a month ago,” Russ says. Earla appears behind him, balancing a cup inverted on a ceramic pot and a white crockery mug. She distributes the tea to Foubert and the coffee to Russ, then fishes her pad out of her apron pocket.
“You folks know what you want?”
Russ nods toward Clare, old-fashioned manners her grandmother Fergusson would approve of. “Chili and fries,” she says.
“That sounds good.” Foubert pours himself a cup of tea. “Make it two.”
“The usual,” Russ says.
“I hadn’t really planned on staying.” Cameron buries his face in the menu.
Foubert picks up his tea cup and angles his bulk toward Clare. “I wanted to ask if you would consider--” he breaks off, staring as she spoons her usual amount of sugar into her coffee. “Good Lord,” he says. “Why don’t you just order a bottle of Karo syrup?”
“No caffeine.” She tink-tink-tinks the spoon around in the mug. Russ grins, reaching for the sugar himself. “If I would consider...?”
“Consider doing an ecumenical service for the Infirmary residents.”
“You mean, separate from my individual visits?”
“Exactly. I’ve read a fascinating study on the health benefits of community worship. I’ve seen how people respond after a visit from you, or from Rev. Inman or Dr. McFeely. I’d like to get something started that our patients who don’t have a prior church connection can participate in. As a group.”
“Huh.” She props her chin in her hand. Russ, she notices, is sneaking sugar into his mug while Foubert isn’t looking. “An ecumenical service. I have to admit I like the idea...”
Russ gives her a look over the rim of his mug. “And you have so much spare time to devote to it, too.”
“Reuben with corned beef.” Jim Cameron hands his menu to Earla. “And can I get mashed potatoes instead of the slaw, please?”
“Have it your way,” Earla says. “That’s our motto.” She holds out her hand for the rest of menus.
Paul Foubert passes his across the table. “I think that’s Burger King, actually.”
“They stole it from us.” Earla collects the rest of the stiff plastic sheets and disappears into the kitchen.
Cameron picks up his folder. “Where were we?”
Russ blows on his coffee. “Reverend Fergusson here was about to take on yet another thankless volunteer job.”
Foubert rumbles, an intimidating sound from a chest as large as his.
Russ raises a hand. “Sorry. No disrespect to the fine work you do up there with the old folks, Paul.”
“When you have a relation in our care, you’ll feel differently,” Foubert says.
“Forget it. When my mother gets too old, I’m putting her on an ice floe and sending her down the Hudson.”
Clare shifts toward the mayor and gives him her sweet-as-sugared-pecans smile. “So what did happen to the roadworks building?”
Cameron blinks a few times. It is a very effective smile. “Nothing much, really. I wouldn’t be bugging Russ about it if it didn’t send poor old Emory into spasms.”
“I suspect that’s why whoever’s behind it is messing up the place.” Russ slides the folder away from the mayor and flips it open. “The vandalism itself is pretty mild. A little spray paint, some stuff tossed around, one of the mowers rolled into the middle of the shed and left leaking oil. McFarland’s a bit of a neat freak. Which is a challenge in and of itself when you’re in charge of maintaining public roads and parks.”
“Out, out, oil spot?” Clare says. He lifts his head to grin at her.
Cameron spreads his hands. “It’s happened two--”
“--three times and nothing significant’s gone missing. Except Emory’s peace of mind.” He turns toward Russ, once more scanning the written inventories and incident reports. “He’s the best roadworks supervisor we’ve ever had. I don’t want to lose him over something as stupid and trivial as this.”
Russ sighs. “I’ve already told him he’s got to stay away from the mess until we can get there. The state techs can’t collect any evidence if he’s already hosed it all away.”
“Why don’t you give him your cell phone number?” Clare looks at Russ. “Have him call you personally the next time it happens. Then you can keep him talking until you can get a unit there.”
“Huh.” He rubs a finger over his lips. “Yeah. That might work.”
She tries to suppress a pleased glow. “You can thank Paul, then. There’s a patient with OCD who rooms with one of my former parishioners. I’ve seen the aides divert him from compulsive behaviors by engaging with him.”
“Is that Mr. Liddle?” Paul says. “In with Mr. Montgomery?”
“Old Mervyn Liddle,” he announces to the table.
“Ah,” Russ says.
“Of course,” Cameron says.
“He’s Emory’s grandfather,” Cameron says.
“On his mother’s side,” Russ adds.
Clare has stumbled into another Millers Kill moment, designed to remind her that, unlike everyone else at the table, her ancestors hadn’t settled in this southern fringe of the Adirondacks in 1720. For the first time she registers that Cameron has the same color hair as Russ, albeit with less gray and more attention from a barber. The mayor and the chief of police are probably cousins somewhere on the family tree.
“You see?” Foubert is lording it over Russ. “Your problem is solved due to the fact that Clare selflessly devotes herself to the spiritual care of the patients in the Infirmary.”
Clare buries her face in her hands. “I was just visiting Mr. Montgomery.”
Foubert pats her on the back with a hand the size of a baseball mitt. “And I know he appreciates it.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Not well.” Foubert’s playful expression sobers. “He rallies the week before his family’s monthly visit, and then goes straight downhill after they leave.” He makes a sound, a cross between resignation and acceptance. “Not much longer, I think.”
Clare is saved from commenting by a “Yo! Mr. Foubert!” from the door. For a moment, Clare doesn’t recognize the dressed-to-impress twenty-something with the cropped, coal-black hair. Then the girl shifts a bulky backpack off her shoulder. Clare adds five pounds of makeup and subtracts several articles of clothing and comes up with the only Goth-girl-turned-CPA she has ever known.
“Kristen,” she says. “Kristen McWhorter.”
Kristin gives her a jaunty salute as she approaches. “Hey! Reverend Clare!” She wedges herself between the tables and drops her backpack onto the banquette next to Foubert. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got some docs for Paul to sign.”
Foubert clucks and shakes his head. “Working through lunchtime instead of hanging out with the girls. I don’t know what the youth of today has come to.”
Kristen smiles, showing the edge of her teeth. “I’m going to have my own firm some day. Not gonna get there sitting around on my ass.”
“Pull up a chair and join us,” Clare urges. “I haven’t seen you since Cody’s birthday party last year.” Kristen’s nephew had been adopted by a couple in Clare’s parish, but Clare’s soft spot for the young woman was based entirely on her own merit. Kristen had freed herself from a background of poverty and abuse through brains, hard work--
“Hey, Chief. Spring any speed traps lately?”
--and a healthy disregard for authority.
Russ steeples his fingers as Kristen drags a chair between the two tables and squeezes herself in between him and the Infirmary director. “I’ll give you a freebie, Kristen. Take it easy if you’re headed out to the K-Mart in Fort Henry.”
“I don’t think you know Jim Cameron. Jim, Kristen McWhorter.”
“Hey.” Kristen levers herself out of the chair enough to pump Cameron’s hand. “You’re not another cop, are you?”
Cameron tries not to look wounded that his name isn’t instantly recognizable to this constituent. “Uh, no. I’m the mayor.”
“Really?” Her voice lilts upward, pleased. She pushes the sugar out of the way and leans on the table. “Are you satisfied with the quality of service you’re getting from your current accountants?”
Earla’s arrival interrupts Kristen’s sales pitch. “Chili, Chili, Corn beef Reuben, BLT.” She hands down the heavy plates. Clare’s bowl is too hot to touch. “I’ll bring the coffee around for a refill, Reverend.” The waitress cocks her head toward the new arrival. “Something for you, honey?”
“God, yes, I’m starving. I’ll have the half-pounder with cheese fries and a large chocolate milkshake.”
The men at the table, all of whom are clustered at one end or the other of the fifty-year line, stare at this display of youthful metabolism. Clare snorts a laugh.
“Just you wait, youngster.” Russ points his finger at Clare. “Your day is coming. Fast.”
“No way.” She dips her spoon into her chili. “I run fifteen miles a week.”
“Yeah? So did I, until my knees blew out.”
“Waist,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing to mind.”
“So, Jim.” Kristen crosses her arms on the table, ready to go after the Millers Kill accounts. “About the town’s bookkeeping...”
Paul Foubert blows on his chili. “She’s very good, Jim.”
“So says the man who always has to go over the town budget three times because he can’t understand the apportionments?”
“I’m a doctor, not an accountant, Jim!” Foubert cracks up.
“Right,” Cameron says. “Never heard that one before.”
“Well, really, I’m a nurse, but that doesn’t sound the same.”
“I really am good,” Kristen says. “I know Paul hired me to do the Infirmary’s accounts because of my sister, but at this point, several of residents have hired me to do their taxes or prep investment reports, and they didn’t have any personal reasons to use my services.” Kristen’s late sister had been a much-loved volunteer at the Infirmary.
“Like Mr. Montgomery,” Paul says over a spoonful of chili, resurrecting the name from an earlier conversation.
“Not enough work with the old folks to keep you busy?” Russ asks.
“No...more like,” Kristen looks at Clare, “there’s not much future in it. If you know what I mean. The residents I do work for are still with it enough to manage their own affairs, more or less, but as soon as they go loopy, or they die, their families take over, and they almost always already have a lawyer or an accountant.”
Earla appears behind Russ’s shoulder and silently places Kristen’s drink in front of her. The milkshake is so thick, the accordion-pleated straw stands straight up in the middle of the fountain glass. Kristen tilts the straw toward her and sucks hard. “Take Mr. Montgomery,” she says around a mouthful of frozen chocolate. “Very lucrative account. But his grandsons have already had their own guy in to go over his investments. Hopefully, I’ll have him as a client for a long time to come, but--”
Paul shakes his head. “I wouldn’t count on that.”
Kristen frowns. “Really? You’re kidding. I saw him just last quarter and he was doing great.”
“He’s declined a lot in the last three months.”
“This is the old guy you were telling us about.” Russ makes it a statement, not a question. “The one whose health goes south after every family visit.”
“And he’s got money?”
Kristen hesitates. “I shouldn’t have--”
Clare reaches across her lunch to touch the girl’s arm. “It’s okay.” She glances at Russ. “I don’t think Chief Van Alstyne is just being nosy.”
“Okay. Yeah. He made some amazing investments back in the nineties. Medical, tech, the Internet--solid businesses, not the crazy stuff that disappeared when the bubble burst.”
Russ looks at Clare. “An elderly man, previously in good health, with a big estate. Who suddenly starts going downhill after every family visit.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” Foubert lays his napkin beside his bowl. “That’s a well-documented phenomenon. Like the die-offs every year after Christmas or other big holidays.”
“He is eighty-two,” Clare says.
“Have you met the family? Do they go to St. Alban’s?”
“His daughter’s dead, but he has three adult grandsons. They live down in New York City. I assumed that was why they only made it up once a month.”
Foubert leaned back against the banquette’s crimson vinyl. “They visit more frequently than many out-of-town family members.”
Clare nods. “That’s true.”
“Besides,” Foubert says, “Mr. Montgomery’s borderline diabetic. He gets regular blood tests. If his grandsons were poisoning him in a nefarious plot to seize control of assets they’re going to get within the next few years anyway, we’d be able to tell.”
“What, everything? With a blood sugar prick? I doubt it.”
Across the diner, the foyer door opens. A curvy woman with a single thick braid of red hair enters, pauses, shrugs off her pea coat.
“Here’s somebody we can ask,” Clare says. “She’s a nurse-practitioner.” She waves to catch the redhead’s attention. “Laura! Laura Rayfield!”
Laura, spotting them, barrels over to the table. “Jim, we were supposed to meet for lunch. The clinic budget requests?”
Like Paul Foubert, Laura runs a medical facility. Unlike the Infirmary, however, the Millers Kill Free Clinic is funded entirely through a combination of state grants and town money. Jim Cameron, his mouth stuffed to capacity with corned beef and swiss cheese, stares at the clinic director with round and guilty eyes, looking for all the world like a yellow Lab caught stealing a sandwich off the counter.
“Owwah,” he says.
“Sit down and join us.” Russ stands. The small table next to Cameron and Clare is still unoccupied. He butts it against their overladen table and indicates the chair next to the mayor. “Here you go.”
Laura flashes him a smile. “Always a gentleman, Russ. Even when abrogating my rights to assemble and protest.”
He smiles right back at her. “I believe that was trespassing and Class E vandalism the last time.” In addition to her job as clinician, Laura moonlights as an environmental activist--the sort who goes well beyond writing letters and collecting signatures.
Earla sidles between Russ and Kristen and deposits a mammoth burger and mound of cheese fries in front of the young woman. “Collected another one, didja?” The waitress pulls her pad from her pocket. “What can I get you, Laura?”
“Chicken Caesar salad, please. And can I get a Tab? No? Damn it, they never carry it anywhere any more. Okay, diet Coke. How’s your foot?”
Earla looks down. “Much better, thanks. Got one of them bunion thingies and a pair of orthopedic shoes from that store in Saratoga. Cost a lot more ‘n getting a pair at the K-Mart, but my feet are thanking me.” She drops the pad back into her pocket. “I’ll be right back with your soda.”
Clare wiggles her mug.
“And your refill, Reverend, sorry.”
Cameron has finished chewing and swallowing and makes a valiant attempt to regain his savoir faire. “Laura, do you know everyone?”
She gestures toward Kristen, who puts down her milkshake and says, “Kristen McWhorter. You don’t remember me, but I remember you. We used to come to the clinic for shots and things when the old doctor was in charge.”
“Aha,” Laura says. “What do you do now?”
Kristen sits up straighter. “I’m a C.P.A.”
“Excellent! You pay taxes?”
Kristen looks as if the nurse-practitioner has asked her if she obeys the law of gravity. “Of course.”
“Do you vote?”
“Do you think the Free Clinic should continue to offer high-quality care for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay?”
“Good.” Laura jerks her thumb toward the mayor. “Tell him.”
That’s about all the lobbying Clare can sit still for at the moment. “Okay, we have a medical question for you, Laura.”
“I am a nurse, too, you know,” Paul says in an aggrieved tone.
Laura shakes her head. “You’re an administrator, Paul. When was the last time you drew blood? Or performed a pulmonary expression? Or--”
“All right. All right. Your point is taken.”
“What did you want to know?” Laura asks Clare.
Clare goes over what they know about Mr. Montgomery while Earla brings Laura’s soda and refills coffee all around. “So we’re wondering, or rather, Chief Van Alstyne was wondering, if his grandsons could be slipping something to Mr. Montgomery that would fit the pattern.”
“Sure. Dozens of toxins. The problem is, most of them are either tightly controlled, or they have very recognizable symptoms that he’s not showing, or you have to ingest them in such quantities that it would be pretty obvious that you’re up to no good. I mean, his grandsons could induce renal failure with enough acetaminophen, but unless he’s senile--” she looks at Foubert.
“Sharp as a tack,” he says.
“Okay, then, he’d notice them trying to get fifty Advils down his throat.”
Russ pushes his plate forward. “What about something they could get anywhere? Like rat poison?”
Laura looks at Foubert again. “Is he showing signs of internal bleeding? Small capillary rupture?”
“No. In fact, he’s on anti-coagulants.”
“Well, then, that rules out the most toxic rodenticides. There are others, but again, now you’re talking about getting a large amount into him. Not easy to do in the course of one afternoon’s visit.”
Russ presses his fingers against his lips for a moment. “Do the grandsons take him anywhere?”
Clare shakes her head. “No. He’s told me, he doesn’t like to ride in the car anymore. He enjoys being outside. The patio, the Infirmary’s garden.”
Foubert nods. “He loves his plants. But there’s no way he could be harmed outdoors. We always, always have someone on duty whenever any of the residents are outside. Precisely because we don’t have the emergency buttons and pull cords out there.”
Russ holds up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. Montgomery’s just an old man with three reasonably attentive grandsons whose health is failing.”
“And?” Clare says.
“And I have a low, suspicious mind.”
“And a tendency to look for the worst in everyone.”
“That’s not a character flaw. That’s a survival trait.”
They grin at each other. On one side, Laura is back to strong-arming the mayor, and on the other, Kristen is pulling papers from her backpack while Paul quizzes her on what he’s supposed to sign. The conversation brackets their silence, creating a slice of privacy in the middle of the busy, buzzing diner. Clare can feel her smile fading with Russ’s as they steal a moment to look, and look, deep-diving in the waters of pleasure and hopelessness.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Clare jerks back against the banquette as if she’s been tasered. Standing behind Russ is St. Alban’s junior warden. Russ twists in his seat. Takes in the man’s shining shoes, cashmere coat, clipped beard. “Oh, wonderful,” he says with loathing in his voice. “Geoffrey Burns.”
“Van Alstyne,” the lawyer says. “Always a pleasure to see you here at the diner.”
“Oh, yes. That way I know you’re not trampling on the rights of the accused.”
Russ smiles pleasantly. “Actually, my deputy is assigned to rights trampling when I’m off duty.”
“Geoff.” Clare pitches her voice loud enough to interrupt the incipient chest thumping. “Hi. Were you looking for me?”
“Not this time. I wanted to speak with Kristen. About Cody.”
Kristen beams at her nephew’s adoptive father. “Oh, yea!” She pokes at Foubert. “Paul, shove over. Let Geoff sit down.”
Burns opens his mouth to protest, but Kristen’s bright anticipation seems to deflate his resistance; shrugging, he says, “All right. Just for a moment.”
Clare has noticed a marked resemblance between Kristen’s broad, apple-cheeked face and that of the Burnses’ well-beloved son. Geoff, she now suspects, sees the same thing.
Foubert slides his bulk across the banquette, forcing Clare to grab her chili and relocate to the seat directly across from Laura Rayfield. She is now three heads down from Russ, on the one day of the week they allow themselves time together. She concentrates on thinking Christian thoughts about Geoff Burns.
Burns nods to the other men at the table as he removes his coat. “Paul,” he says. “Jim.” He looks at Laura. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“This is Laura Rayfield,” Clare says. “She’s the director of the Free Clinic.”
“Ohhh.” Burns takes what had been Foubert’s seat. “Oh, yes. I’ve heard quite a bit about the Free Clinic.”
“In addition to being a very fine lawyer--” Russ’s snort interrupts Clare for a second “--Geoff is also the junior warden at my church. He was in on all the discussions about the fate of the Ketchum trust funds.”
“Sorry about taking the money away from the clinic,” Burns says, sounding not in the least sorry. “But it did go to a good cause.”
Laura’s glare drills him like a colonoscopy. “Then I’ll count on you to support the referendum to increase town funding for the clinic.”
“Uh huh. Well. Will this increase our taxes?”
“Yes,” Cameron says.
Burns looks like the mayor just offered him toad-in-the-hole with real toad.
Clare smiles at Laura. “Maybe Geoff would like to talk with you about a personal donation to the clinic. A sizable personal donation.”
Burns’ hand, resting on the tabletop, jerks. “I absolutely endorse your referendum, Ms. Rayfield. Just let me know what I can do. To drum up support. From other voters.”
Earla appears with Laura’s order, a menu tucked under her arm. She sets the salad in front of the clinic director and hands the plastic sheet to Burns. “Can I get you a drink while you’re looking?”
“What do you have for mineral water?”
Earla stares at the ceiling for a moment, as if in thought. She looks at Burns. “Tap water and a vitamin supplement.”
“Right. Very amusing. Okay, bring me whatever you’ve got in bottled water.”
“I’m sorry. All we’ve got is tap.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. How can you not have bottled water in this day and age?”
“The coffee’s good,” Clare suggests.
“I don’t think he needs any more caffeine,” Laura whispers across the table.
“Coke Zero,” Burns snarls.
Earla appears about to say something, then nods. “You got it.”
“What did you want to talk to me about?” Kristen says.
Burns brushes off his sleeve, settling himself down. “Karen and I wanted to invite you to Cody’s birthday party next month. We have to pin down the guest list in order to get the numbers to the caterer.” He leaned forward to look at Clare. “Karen already spoke to you, correct?”
“Yep. The big Oh-Two. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“You’re catering a two-year-old’s birthday party?” Russ’s incredulous tone is just shy of outright scorn.
Clare balls up a paper napkin and throws it. It bounces off Russ’s chest and lands in the ruins of his BLT. He looks down at his plate, then up at Clare.
“Cut it out,” she orders.
His mouth twitches. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”
Kristen glances from Burns, to Russ, to Clare. “Geoff knows Mr. Montgomery,” she says, apropos of nothing.
“Who? Jock Montgomery?”
“Mr. Clarence Montgomery,” Foubert says. “He’s one of our residents. You represent him? I didn’t realize.”
“I don’t represent him. He’s the beneficiary of a trust I executed.”
“He’s the beneficiary of a trust?” Clare says.
“From his late wife’s estate.”
“She was a Barkley,” Foubert says to the table.
“Ah,” Russ says.
“Lotta money there,” Cameron says.
Burns, who is also not a native of Millers Kill, exchanges a look with Clare. “The trust pays Mr. Montgomery’s bills. Including his fees at the Infirmary.”
Cameron brightens. “He’s not subsidized? I like him better already.”
“I had no idea a trust was involved,” Foubert says. “The payments look like straightforward bank deposits.”
“You weren’t missing anything,” Burns says. “We set it up in as informal a way as possible for AllBanc to administer. It’s basically designed to pay out to support Mr. Montgomery until it’s tapped out. At that time, he’ll have to dip into his own funds.”
“But there are designated beneficiaries,” Russ says. “In case there’s money left over when he dies.”
Burns frowns. “Of course. The residue would go to his family on a per capita basis.”
“How much is there?” Clare asks.
“Clare! I can’t tell you that.”
“I bet Terry McKellan at AllBanc knows.” The VP of corporate lending was another of Clare’s vestry.
“He can’t tell you either, Clare. That’s unethical.”
She props her chin in her hand. “Is it a lot?”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Let’s just say the beneficiaries would be well set up if Montgomery happened to die at this point.”
The entire table goes silent.
“What?” Burns said. “What?”
A bustle at the door catches Clare’s eye. Two businessmen step aside to admit a small, rotund woman wearing ripstop nylon over a bright red sweatshirt. Her tight gray perm swings back and forth, back and forth, as she scans the crowded diner. Then she spots them.
“Laura,” she yodels. “Yoo hoo!”
Russ tears his attention away from Burns. “Mom?”
Margy Van Alstyne bumps her way down the center of the diner, waving hello and calling out to at least three other people. She reaches her son and drops a kiss on his hair. She doesn’t have far to go; even when he sits, she’s only a head taller than Russ.
“Hi, sweetie.” She beams at the rest of the table. “Why, look at you all. Don’t tell me there was a town meeting and I wasn’t invited.”
“Mom, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, I had to come into town to go to the library and do a shop at the IGA. I thought I’d call on Laura--” she smiles again, flashing the even white teeth of a denture-wearer, “--and go over some things for our next Watchdogs meeting.” Contrary to her sweet, cookie-baking face and polyester Grandma slacks, Russ’s mother doesn’t spend her time at home, knitting. She is a hard-core environmental activist, as proud of her lengthy civil-disturbance arrest record as she is of her children.
Laura pats the table between herself and Clare. “Come on over here and sit by me, then.”
Russ rises without being asked and goes in search of a spare chair. Returning, he positions it between Clare and Laura, apologizing to the diners at the next table over.
“Thank you, sweetie,” his mother says, seating herself. She reaches out and clasps one of Clare’s hands in both of her own. “Clare. It’s always a pleasure to see you. Are you still sticking it to the patriarchy?”
Clare grins. “Every day.” She genuinely likes Margy Van Alstyne, but in her most honest moments, she has to admit that part of her warm feelings arise from gratitude. Margy, in her open and public affection for Clare, helps lay to rest gossip about Clare’s friendship with her son. Another small weight of sin Clare carries around with her. They accumulate, those small weights, like stones in her pocket. Someday, she knows, she’ll have to toss them away or drown.
Russ’s regard draws her. She feels his gaze like a touch.
Someday, she’ll have to leave those stones behind. But not today.
Earla appears with a menu and a glass of soda. She reaches across to give the glass to Burns, then points the menu toward Russ’s mother. “Hiya, Margy. You need a menu?”
“Not hardly. You bring me a burger, no bun, with a side of cottage cheese and I’ll be as happy as a clam.”
“What’ll you have to drink?”
“Ice tea would be nice, Earla, thank you.” After the waitress leaves, Margy folds her hands and looks expectantly at the rest of them. “Have I missed any good gossip?”
There is a general pause. Then Russ says, “Do you know Clarence Montgomery? He’s a resident up at the infirmary now?”
“Of course I do,” Margy says. “He and his wife Letty were members of the gardening club for years. They lived on the north end of Elm Street until she passed. He took it some hard. I always thought one of the reasons he went into the Infirmary was just so he didn’t have to rattle around in that big old place all by himself.” She purses her lips. “I have to admit I’ve been a bad one for getting up to see anyone at the Infirmary. I don’t think I’ve paid a visit since early summer. I brought him some nice potted begonias.” Her breath catches and her mouth sags open. “Don’t ever say he’s gone.”
“No, no, no,” Foubert says.
“Not yet,” Russ says. “You know anything about his grandsons?”
“Oh, those boys.” Margy’s voice is dismissive. “Smart enough, from what I heard, but you couldn’t get a decent day’s work out of all three of ‘em put together. They left for college and never came back.”
Clare feels she has to give them credit where credit is due. “They do visit their grandfather every month.”
“They’ll be here today,” Foubert says.
“Today?” Russ’s eyes sharpen.
“Last Wednesday of the month,” Foubert says. “That’s their regular time.”
Russ flips Jim Cameron’s folder open. He shuffles page after page. “Dammit, I don’t see--” he looks up. “Anyone got a calendar?”
Burns reaches into his breast pocket and brings out a Blackberry. He slides it across the table. Russ picks it up. Flicks a button. Looks at the file. Flicks another button. Looks at the file. He hands the Blackberry back to Burns. “It matches.”
“What?” Cameron says.
“He means the roadworks building has been broken into three time--on the last Wednesday of each month.” Clare is speaking to the mayor, but looking at Russ.
“You think there’s a connection?” Foubert asks.
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Russ says.
Margy crosses her arms over her redoubtable bosom. “What in tarnation are you talking about?”
“Mr. Montgomery’s grandsons,” Clare says.
“Well, it’s no coincidence they know their way around the roadworks building. The two oldest worked there when they were in high school.” She raps on the table. “That’s how I knew about them being shiftless. Cousin Nane’s husband used to be the supervisor before he got sick with the cancer.”
“Maybe the grandsons are just pissed off at the roadworks department,” Kristen offers.
“Enough to vandalize the place three times?” Russ reaches the folder over Jim Cameron’s plate to hand it to the clinic director. “Laura. Take a look at the list of stuff that’s been knocked over or disturbed and tell me if there’s anything that might be making Mr. Montgomery sick.”
Laura pushes her salad away and spreads the folder on the table in front of her. She runs a finger down one page, turns it over, begins on the second page. She stops, taps something, looks at the third page. “Hmn.”
“Clean Green. A whole bucket of the thing was knocked over each time.” She looks sideways at the mayor. “Your guy really needs to be storing this stuff more carefully. And he needs to be really careful about cleaning it up.”
“What’s Clean Green?” Clare asks.
“Etrizyphelen. It’s a powerful insecticide.”
Russ leans forward. “Dangerous to humans?”
“Well, yes, but not from ingesting it. If you took any of this accidentally, you’d just vomit it up. The only dangerous part is application. You have to wear a mask when spraying the stuff, because if it gets into your lungs, it collects in the bronchial nodes. Get too much of it, and you’ll suffocate from the inside out.”
Clare breathes in. “This stuff--is it a dark green powder?”
“That’s the base. You mix it in water and spray it.”
“Mr. Montgomery’s plants.” Clare looks at Foubert. “He has two long shelves, loaded with potted plants.”
Foubert nods. “He says since he can’t garden outdoors anymore, he’ll garden indoors.”
“He has a tin--” Clare makes the shape of a small rectangle with her hands. “--just a plain decorative tin, like he might have had tea in once. It’s filled with a dark green powder. He sprinkles it on his plants. He did it once, while I was visiting him.” She’s pretty sure the tight feeling in her chest is just her imagination.
Russ looks around the table, his face set in hard lines. “Anybody want to bet money that it’s just Miracle-Gro in that tin?”
No one says anything.
He shoves his chair back. Stands up. Takes his billfold out of his pocket and tosses a twenty on the table. “I’m going up to the Infirmary.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” Foubert says.
She looks up at him, startled.
“I suspect Mr. Montgomery’s going to be pretty upset when he finds out his grandsons have been delivering poison during their monthly visits.” He looks at her.
“He’ll probably want someone to talk to,” she agrees.
He opens a hand. “Well? That’s your job, not mine.”
She stands up and edges her way around Margy and Laura. When she reaches his side, she says, “I’m going to miss the pie.”
“I’ll buy you a slice next week. There’s always pie on Wednesday.”
She glances out the window at the great wide October sky. “Let’s go, then.”