A Taste of Death (Maggie Olenski Series) (10 page)

"It was on a photo shoot out on Long Island that I met Jack. We were doing an advertising brochure for one of his companies. I forget which one. I just remember shivering in a damn bathing suit on a chilly beach in October. Anyway, he swept me away from it all, and I've never had to work a day since."

Leslie smiled when she said it, but Maggie thought she detected a touch of wistfulness in her voice. Leslie took a long drink from her glass.

"We should have come before, to offer our condolences," Maggie said. She sat down on a white brocade sofa that sank under h
er weight about as much as
a rock
would
, and she blinked with surprise, causing Leslie to laugh.

"When I said 'Let's get comfy' I forgot where we'd be sitting. The furniture in here is all for show." Leslie carried her glass to one of the stiff-looking chairs and sat down, pulling her feet up. "The only really comfortable stuff is in Jack's study - nice, soft leather - but I just can't bring myself to go in there."

"We understand," Dyna said, looking sympathetic.

"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to break up in tears or anything. It's just that the whole situation is so... so weird. They won't even release his body yet. Jack wanted to be cremated, and they're telling me they're not finished with it yet - tests and all, you know."

Maggie no
dded. She took a sip of her Pepsi
, and out of the corner of her eye saw something move. A cat, tiger-striped and muscular, had slipped through a partially-opened glass door that
appeared to lead to a solarium
and was marching firmly towards Leslie.

"Mrs. Hanson!" Leslie shouted. "He's here again!" She looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Mrs. Hanson scurried into the room, all apologetic. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Warwick," she said, in what sounded to Maggie like a slight Germanic accent. "I was sure I had closed him in the den. I don't know how...."

"Just get him out of here."

Leslie's vehemence surprised Maggie. The cat didn't look particularly vicious, and in fact hung limply in Mrs. Hanson's hands when she scooped him up and carried him away.

"He's Jack's cat," Leslie said, as though that explained everything. "He found him in an alley somewhere and brought him home, called him Ali. I swear he fussed over him more than I've seen him do for any other livin' creature.
Any
other. He knew I didn't like cats, but..., oh, never mind. I'll get rid of him, somehow." She grinned. "Would y'all like a cat?"

Maggie saw Dyna's eager intake of breath, and before she could blurt anything out said, "We can't. We're just staying at the cabin for a short time. No way. Sorry."

Leslie shrugged. "It's okay
. Maybe Mrs. Hanson knows someone."

Maggie's gaze wandered back to the room the cat had been in, an idea forming. "Is that a solarium?" she asked. "Could I take a peek at it?"

Leslie looked over her shoulder in surprise, as though she had forgotten the room existed. "Sure. It's nice and cheery in there, but the wicker furniture really isn't any more comfortable than this stuff."

"No," Maggie said, "I can see some greenery in there, and I just love plants." Dyna looked at her with an odd expression which Maggie ignored as she popped up and followed Leslie to the sun room. "Oh, isn't it lovely, Dyna," she said, cringing inwardly as she heard herself sound just like one of her mother's gushy friends. "How do you keep them so healthy?"

Leslie shrugged again. "I don't take care of them. They came with the house, and Mrs. Hanson waters them, I guess."

Maggie wandered around the room, which was bright and sunny, and, with its tropical decor, a stark contrast to the bare trees and snow visible through the windows. She bent down to sniff at a blooming camellia. "Mmm, wonderful." A tall palm stood in its pot nearby. "I could spend all day in a room like this. Doesn't it make you want to stretch out in a swim suit and soak up the sun?"

Leslie was about to say something when Mrs. Hanson's voice sailed in calling, "Mrs. Warwick. It's the caterer. Shall I have him call back later?"

"No, I'd better talk to him. Excuse me," she said to Maggie and Dyna, "I'll just be a minute."

The moment she left the room, Maggie hissed to Dyna, "Stick close. I'm going to take samples." She immediately began breaking off parts of each of the plants in the room.

"What are you doing?" Dyna whispered, wide-eyed.

"I'll explain later." Maggie broke off a piece of the potted palm. "How can we carry these? I don't have a purse. Did you bring one?" Maggie tested the pockets
of her jeans, which fit closely
and found they wouldn't hold more than a leaf or two.

"No, I hate purses," Dyna said. "I don't know. Wait, put them in here." Dyna held out the front pocket-pouch of her hooded sweatshirt, and Maggie quickly shoved the twigs already filling her hands into it. By the time Leslie returned, the pouch had been fully packed, and Dyna kept a hand at each side to keep greenery from slipping out. Maggie thought the look on her face was priceless, a combination of "who, me?" innocence, and "please don't ask me to shake hands" worry. She would have laughed if the situation weren't so serious.

They followed Leslie back to the living room where she immediately freshened her drink. "That was Dan Morgan. He's doing the food for the fund raiser."

"Fund raiser?" Maggie asked.

"Yes, weeks ago Jack and I agreed to hold a fund-raising buffet dinner here to benefit the school. They need a new library, and Jack, of course, was looking for ways to ingratiate himself with the town. It's gotten a lot of promotion ever since, and I don't see any reason not to go ahead with it."

She really doesn't see any reason, does she, Maggie thought.

"I don't suppose you knew about it, but everyone will be here. The PTA ladies are handling the ticket sales. I hope you'll both come? It's the day after tomorrow."

Maggie nodded, slowly. "I guess...." She looked over at Dyna, who sat looking a little plumper than she had when she first arrived, her hands still stuffed into each side of her pouch.

"Sure," Dyna said, nodding stiffly. She seemed afraid of talking too much, as if taking in the extra breath needed would
call attention to her lumpy bell
y.

Leslie didn't seem to be noticing much, though, her thoughts on other things. "The food will be wonderful, since Dan's doing it. Have you ever tried his wild mushroom soup? It's out of this world. I always ordered it when we ate at his restaurant. He sent some over after, well, after, you know, that town meeting, which was so kind of him, don't you think? Anyway, there'll be loads of flowers. And music. We'll move the baby grand into the...." Leslie suddenly screamed as Ali, the orange cat, appeared from nowhere and leaped up onto her lap.

"Get off! Get off!" She had partially risen from her chair, but the cat stubbornly refused to jump off, his claws anchored firmly in her clothing. "Mrs. Hanson!" Maggie stood up to help and had just about pried him loose when the housekeeper appeared at her shoulder to take him from her.

"I was in the laundry room, Mrs. Warwick," she explained, agitated. "I don't know how he gets out! He's like a demon cat."

"A demon, yes! He's a devil cat. I won't have him around me! I won't! He's Jack's cat. I've seen his eyes. He's watching me! Jack is watching me through him."

 

<><><>

 

"Wow," Dyna said, as she buckled herself into Maggie's front seat. "What was all that?"

They had taken their leave, Leslie apologizing for her outburst but clearly too over-wrought for their company anymore. Dyna had managed to get her jacket on without losing much of the clandestine contents of her sweatshirt, gracefully picking up a single twig that had fallen to the floor as Maggie distracted their hostess at the door.

"I don't know." Maggie frowned as she looked at the house, then put her key in the ignition.

"Sounded like a guilty conscience to me, wouldn't you say?" Dyna asked.

"Maybe. Whatever she was sipping might have had a lot to do with it too."

  "Could be. And maybe she was sipping whatever she was sipping because of a guilty conscience. Anyway, now that we're out of there," Dyna patted her middle, "how about explaining what all these plant pinchings are for? You're not going to start your own greenhouse, are you?"

"No, but I want to take them
to
a greenhouse or a garden center. Someplace where they can identify them for me."

"You're suddenly interested in botany?"

"I'm interested in plants that can kill. Poisonous plants."

"Oh, wow, you mean like hemlock? Do you think Leslie was growing hemlock to poison Jack?"

"I don't think anything yet. That's why I want to get these identified. It's just one possibility that occurred to me after that cat came out of the sun room. Remember Paul said the book found at Elizabeth's was marked at the chapter on household poisons? Well, plants are in a lot of households. Maybe one of these are poisonous. Now, where can we go to find out?"

Dyna pulled out her iPhone and started tapping away. “Here’s a garden center,” she said.
“They should be able to help.
Let’s see, it’s only about eight miles out of town. Close enough?”

“Sounds good,” Maggie said, and listened as Dyna read off the directions from the website and added a few herself.

Within minutes,
Maggie drove into a large, mostly empty parking lot, surrounded by an open area that in warm weather must have been
filled with flowers and shrubs
but now was filled with snow. A large, glass-roofed building stood before them, and when they entered Maggie immediately felt an increase in heat and humidity. She had to shield her eyes from the bright glare of sun c
oming through the roof, and once
her eyes finally adjusted she saw a long, narrow interior filled with rows of tables. Indoor plants, potting soil, and varieties of plastic and
ceramic pots filled the tables
and much of the floor. A lone clerk sat next to the cash register. She put aside a book and looked up expectantly.

"Hi," Maggie said. "I need someone who is a plant expert. Would that be you?"

The young woman grinned and shook her head. "That'd be my Dad. I just help out here on the afternoons I don't have classes."

"And I take it you're not majoring in botany?"

The woman laughed. "Uh-uh. Accounting. All I can tell you is how much the merchandise costs. Dad's gone to Plymouth to pick up some things. He won't be back for two or three hours, at least.

"Do you think if I left these here," Maggie asked, - Dyna had begun pulling out plant pieces from her sweatshirt to lay on the counter, causing the young woman's eyes to widen - "he could identify them for me?" She wrote down the phone number at the cabin. "I'm interested in plants that could be poisonous, in any way." Seeing the frown that formed on the girl's face, she quickly added, "My sister, here, is expecting a baby, and we don't want to have anything around that could be harmful."

"Oh, I understand. Kids always put the darndest things in their mouths don't they? I'm sure Dad would be glad to help. I'll just put these in plastic bags, until he gets back."

"Thanks so much," Maggie said.

"I'm having a baby?!" Dyna's aggrieved whisper into Maggie's ear made her flinch as they pushed out the door of the greenhouse.

"Shh, sister dear," she whispered back. "Mustn't upset your hormones."

"It's bad enough I looked pregnant back at Leslie's with the front of my shirt all stuffed up. Now you're telling people I
am
pregnant." She was grumbling, but Maggie knew it was just for show.

"Dyna, after this is all over, I promise to go around and explain everything. Right now, I'm starved. In case you haven't noticed, we never had lunch, and it's almost dinner time. How about stopping somewhere?"

Dyna brightened up at the mention of food. "I was just thinking the same thing. I could feel my blood sugar starting to go down."

"Yes," Maggie said with a sly grin. "We mustn't let that bl
ood sugar get too low
now that you're eating for two." She si
destepped away from Dyna's kick
and jumped into the car.

"Just for that remark, I'm going to insist on going to my favorite place," Dyna said, as she climbed into the passenger seat.

"W
here's that?"

"Leslie reminded me about it, talking about the catering she's having. Dan Morgan's restaurant."

Maggie winc
ed. "I was thinking of someplace we could get dinner in a hurry. I need to hit the books tonight."

"Morgan's won't be busy on a week night. And he's the only place that carries vegetarian selections. I promise, we'll get quick service."

Maggie pondered
as she
put the car in gear. The food items
they had back in the cabin's refrigerator would take some time to prepare, she knew. Besides, her stomach had started growling. If they were seated quickly at the restaurant, at least there'd likely be bread sticks to nibble at.

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