Authors: Betty Hechtman
The reality of the situation began to sink in as I sat in my kitchen. What was I going to do? In a couple of days, twenty people were going to arrive here expecting an organized retreat.
When I’d looked through my aunt’s notes for the Sheep to Shawl weekend, it sounded like such a good idea, particularly since I’d met Nicole and she had been so enthused about it. But all that had changed.
Julius was sitting on the chair next to me, giving me a dirty look. I’d tried feeding him the leftover chicken breast Lucinda had given me before I left the restaurant, but he walked away with a plaintive meow.
Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I had made a mistake and taken on more than I could handle. I shook my head, trying to get rid of that thought. Had I just said, even to myself, that my mother might be right? No way. But still I had that feeling of wanting to take off.
But I couldn’t cancel the retreat; it was in two days.
“When you get hungry enough you’ll eat it,” I said to Julius as I headed to the door. The early birds were expecting me to join them for dinner. The cat stared at me for a moment, flicked his tail and walked toward the bedroom.
How could Nicole have died? She was only twenty-seven.
The grounds of Vista Del Mar were quiet as I passed through on the way to the Sea Foam dining hall. The dinner bell had rung and almost everyone was already inside. I caught a whiff of the scent of hot food as I neared the building. Somehow in the mix of the day I’d forgotten about eating and my hunger had just shown up with a vengeance.
I recognized the frizz of Bree’s blond curls as soon as I walked inside. She, Olivia and Scott were sitting at a table near the massive stone fireplace. Scott certainly wasn’t hiding that he knit anymore. Something partially done in a masculine shade of brown was on the table next to his place setting and I saw he had the needles in his hands and was working them as he talked to his tablemates.
They all looked up as I pulled out a chair next to Olivia. I was glad to see that the color had returned to Bree’s face and she seemed back to normal, but then she didn’t know about Nicole’s death yet.
“What’s for dinner?” I said, glancing at their plates. Olivia pushed her plate closer to me.
“Mushroom stroganoff,” she said. She showed me a card sitting on the table explaining that Vista Del Mar had adopted the plan of going meatless on Tuesdays. “It’s quite the green thing to do now,” she said. It must have been another of Kevin St. John’s changes. I suppose he’d mentioned it before I’d joined them the other day.
Whatever it was made of, it smelled delicious and I went to get a plate. The plan was I’d eat and then break the news about Nicole. The only one whose reaction concerned me was Bree’s. I was afraid she’d feel it was her fault. I didn’t know the cause of death, but I doubted that Bree could have done anything to save her.
I’d barely set my plate down and tasted a forkful of rich sauce over buttered noodles when I saw Lieutenant Borgnine and Kevin St. John come into the dining hall. Lieutenant Borgnine was built like a bulldog and either had a whole wardrobe of grayish rumpled-looking sports jackets or always wore the same one. His hair was mostly a dark gray and cut short to lessen the contrast with his bald spot. Kevin St. John had a somber expression that matched the look of his dark suit, white shirt and tie. The two men passed through the roomful of animated people in casual wear like a pair of dark clouds.
I knew they were headed our way and reevaluated my plan. I dropped my fork and looked across the table to Bree.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Nicole, the woman you found, died.” Bree didn’t have time to react before the two men reached our table.
“I hope you are all enjoying your dinner,” Kevin said, putting on a pleasant expression. He kept his tone light as he introduced Lieutenant Borgnine, apparently not realizing we’d all met before. The three early birds had been questioned by the lieutenant during the last retreat. And I had dealt with him a number of times. I heard Bree make a little gasp as Kevin St. John explained that she was the one who’d found Nicole. I was glad he didn’t say “the deceased”
or “the body.” Referring to Nicole by name somehow didn’t seem as bad.
“I’m going to need a statement from you,” the lieutenant said to Bree. I’d never noticed what a growly tone his voice had. Her face went pale and she seemed befuddled.
“What’s the cause of death?” I said, standing up. The lieutenant glowered at me. He still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that I’d bested him in a previous investigation.
“Here we go again,” he said with an unhappy shake of his head. “I’m the one who asks the questions.” Without taking a breath he turned to Bree and asked her to explain what had happened.
“Was she murdered? I didn’t do it. I promise,” the young mother said, seeming close to tears. Olivia put a hand on her shoulder to calm her.
“Bree, he just asked what you saw,” the older woman said.
“Are you saying her death was suspicious?” I interrupted. Lieutenant Borgnine groaned at my question and paused as if considering his words. In the end, he ignored me, but explained a little more to Bree.
“Ms. Meyers, it’s routine to get a statement under the circumstances,” he said, but stopped there without any explanation of what the circumstances were.
Bree nervously repeated pretty much what she’d told me earlier. I interrupted and asked again about the cause of death. Lieutenant Borgnine rocked his head and looked skyward in a hopeless fashion.
“We’re not ready to give out that information yet,” he said tersely. He thanked Bree for her cooperation, which was a little dig at me, and gave her his card in case she thought of anything else. Just to be sure, he asked the other two what they knew about Nicole.
Scott shrugged it off and said the only thing he knew was that Nicole was supposed to have given them a spinning lesson. Olivia said pretty much the same thing.
Lieutenant Borgnine turned back to me. “And you, Ms. Feldstein. I understand that you hired her for your retreat. Did you see her this morning?”
“Why are you asking if I saw her? What kind of information are you looking for?” I asked. It was an automatic response with me. When I’d worked for the detective agency, my boss had trained me never to give out information, only to get it. The policeman actually hit his forehead in frustration.
Then he pointed at himself. “I am the investigator here. Not you.”
“I am just trying to be helpful,” I said. “Do you want to know if she looked ill?”
It was clear I was trying his patience and he spoke brusquely. “Fine. Did she look ill when you saw her today?” He looked at me intently. “And don’t you dare answer with a question.”
“No problem,” I said. “I didn’t see her this morning.”
Lieutenant Borgnine barely choked out a thank-you before he turned to go. I got a parting dirty look from Kevin St. John as he followed the cop toward the door.
Even with the cop and the manager gone, the mood stayed gloomy at the table. I didn’t even feel like eating the mushroom stroganoff that had looked so luscious a few minutes ago. Bree seemed at a loss about what to do. She took out her cell phone and then put it away.
“This is like withdrawal,” she said. “I wonder what she died of. Maybe she was choking. If only I’d known what was wrong.” Bree’s shoulders slumped and as I feared, she was beginning to worry she hadn’t done enough.
“We don’t know anything about her,” Scott said and looked to me. “Casey, you’re the only one here who knew her at all. Did she have some kind of condition?”
“It does seem strange that a woman so young would die of natural causes,” Olivia said. I was trying to find a way to change the subject to something more cheerful and was happy to see Dr. Sammy come into the dining hall. The feeling seemed mutual because as soon as he saw me he bounded over to our table.
Sammy’s natural expression was a smile that seemed to come mostly from his eyes. I know that sounds weird, but that’s the only way I can explain it.
“Hey, Case,” he said, calling me by the nickname only he used. He glanced over at the people sitting around me and picked up on their glum mood. “What’s up?”
I rose from the table and pulled him aside, dumping the whole story on him, including my problems with the retreat.
“Turning wool into yarn sounds like magic, but I’m afraid I’d be no help with that,” he said. “But if you want to talk about your retreat person’s death, I’m available any time, night or day,” he added. The best thing about Sammy was I knew he meant that, but I had a more immediate problem.
“Can you do something to cheer them up?” I asked.
“Can I?” he said with a wink. “It works out perfect because I stopped by to check out the room. You know, get a feel for the space with people in it. Don’t worry about it. I can take it from here.”
He kept me next to him and addressed my early birds. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Amazing Dr. Sammy and I’m going to be doing table magic here this weekend,” he began. He looked down at his attire. “Oops, I didn’t realize I was still wearing this.” He whipped off the white coat with
embroidered on it. “I’ll be wearing a tuxedo,” he said.
He put his hand on my back and pushed me forward. “And this is my lovely assistant, Casey.” My group responded with smiles and I could feel their mood lifting already.
Sammy was tall and had an imposing build. People at other tables had begun to look toward our little group. He made a magnanimous wave and invited everyone to gather around.
When it seemed everyone who wanted to had joined us, Sammy reached into his pocket and pulled out a deck of cards.
Making eye contact with the crowd, Sammy began his patter. “You know there are people that think magicians are dorky,” he said as if he were letting them in on a secret. “The kind of guys who never get the girl.”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Maybe a little too much, and Sammy’s smile dimmed for a moment before he continued. “Never underestimate the power of magic.” He had me pick a random card from the deck. Once I saw that it was the six of hearts, he had me show it to the crowd. “My assistant will write her name on it,” he said, handing me a pen. I’d never seen this trick and had no idea where it was going, so I did as he asked, including folding the card in quarters before he put it in my mouth.
He picked a card and showed the crowd that it was the king of spades before writing
the Amazing Dr. Sammy
on it. As he folded it up, he said now he was going to demonstrate the power of his magic. He put the card in his mouth and then before I knew what was coming, he kissed me. He had caught me completely off guard and while I was still reeling from surprise, he told me to take the card out of my mouth and unfold it.
“It’s the king of spades—with your name on it,” I said in amazement. He grinned as he took the card out of his mouth and showed off the six of hearts with my name on it.
Then he delivered the punch line. “It’s all in the lips. A magical kiss. Pretty cool, huh? I tricked a girl into kissing me.”
The trick had the desired effect and everyone laughed and rolled their eyes at the corny line. He even got a round of applause. He took a hammy bow and leaned into me. “Maybe we should practice that trick again.”
Here was the problem with Sammy. There just wasn’t any magic in his kiss on my end. He thought it was technique and that he could somehow learn how to fix it. I didn’t share his opinion. Whether it was because he was too nice of a guy or my parents had endorsed him so strongly, there was something missing for me and I didn’t think there was any way to change that.
“You told me that you never repeated a trick,” I said with a laugh.
“I can always make an exception,” he said with an overdone wiggle of his eyebrows. The mood of my little group had changed and the icing on the cake was when I told the early birds about our trip to the ranch the next morning.
As we parted company, Bree was telling Olivia and Scott they ought to meet in the lobby of Sea and Sand for their own knitting session.
“Thanks, Sammy,” I said when they’d gone. “Your trick did the trick,” I rolled my eyes at my too-clever comment. “Just a hint, though. You might not want to use that one over the weekend. Family crowd and all.” Sammy nodded with understanding.
“I didn’t do it in the bar in Seaside, either. Not the trick for a bunch of drunken sailors.” Sammy laughed. “Actually, the only one I wanted to show it to was you.”
What was I going to say? When someone wears their heart on their sleeve that way, you can’t just walk away. I gave him a warm hug before I left.
Julius was waiting by the door. I checked his bowl and the chicken was still there. He did a few figure eights around my ankles and then went directly to the pantry, like I was supposed to follow him. He looked up at me with his yellow eyes and I swear his meow came out like “please.” I was never good at tough love even when I was a substitute teacher. He did a happy cat dance when I took out a can of stink fish.
When he was happily eating, I was back to thinking about Nicole. It wasn’t just because of my obvious problem. I wondered what had happened to her. Wouldn’t the easy thing have been for Lieutenant Borgnine to explain they thought that she had died of heart failure or something? And why was he investigating unless he didn’t think she’d died from natural causes? I was willing to bet there were some suspicious circumstances.