Tuesday Afternoon Murder Club is a fun project that I’m working on, a lighthearted story set in a retirement village. I’m going to publish the story as a serial, so stay tuned for more episodes. You can find Chapter One here.
Chapter Fifteen – The Ominous Vial
“Hello? Eleanor, hello? Are you still there?” The accountant’s voice crackled down the line, and Eleanor shook herself out of her reverie.
“Yes, John, I’m sorry. I’m here. You wanted to talk to me about some unusual activity?”
“Yes, look it’s probably nothing, but I thought I’d check in with you first. There are so many scams going around these days, especially with older people such as yourself, so one can’t really be too careful.”
Eleanor bristled slightly at John’s remark about ‘older people such as yourself’. If the accountant was not the same age as her, or even older, then he certainly looked it. His head was almost entirely bald, ringed by some wisps of grey, and he had a habit of blinking shortsightedly through his wire rimmed glasses. She took a deep breath. There were more important things at stake here.
“Of course. It certainly pays to be careful, I appreciate your phone call. Could you tell me a bit more about this phone call?”
“Oh yes, certainly. It was simply an inquiry into your investment account, you know, the retirement funds that we are managing on your behalf. It was actually Maureen who took the call, I should say. The caller requested a breakdown of your investment portfolio, which Maureen provided. She sent it by email, and I should say that she didn’t think to tell me until after she’d already sent the information. Bit of a mistake there, I should say, and I do apologise on Maureen’s behalf. Oh, and there was also a request for some information about fees and charges, I should say. What fees would be incurred if you moved your portfolio away from our business and had someone else manage it. You’re not going planning to leave us, are you Eleanor?” He sounded very aggrieved, and Eleanor hurried to reassure him.
“Oh no, of course not John. You’ve been my accountant and advisor for years.” She realised that she was clenching her jaw, and that her knuckles were white where they were gripping the phone. She tried to force herself to relax. Daryl. This was what she feared he was going to do, siphon off her retirement fund and leave her with nothing. That monster. She would have to leave Tranquil Waters, and the little home that she loved. She only hoped that she was going to act in time to save her money. “I really appreciate your call, John, and I assure you, I have no plans to move my money away from your firm. Oh, do you happen to know if he gave a name? The caller? Although it’s bound to be a fake name….”
“Oh yes, of course. And it wasn’t a man. In fact, Maureen was sure that she recognised the voice, which is why she sent off the information without checking first. It was your daughter, Kathy.”
Eleanor was dumbfounded. She sank back into her chair, and carefully hung up the phone. Kathy? What could this possibly mean?
At Judy’s house, Eleanor sipped tea out of a cup that said ‘World’s best tea drinker’ on the side. She waited until Judy was settled into her armchair, Giles snuggled in beside her, until she told her all about the phone conversation with the accountant. Judy and Giles both listened wide eyed, with Giles snorting in alarm at exactly the right places in Eleanor’s story. Eleanor laughed. “You can see why I’m concerned, Giles, can’t you?” Giles whined and turned his head away from her.
“But seriously, Judy, I don’t understand. Why would Kathy be making such a phone call?” Eleanor could hear the anxious note in her own voice, and tried to steady her nerves. She knew her own daughter. Kathy wouldn’t hurt a fly, there was no way that she would plot against her own mother.
“Psht. Anyone can make a phone call like that and call themselves Kathy. Does Daryl have a receptionist? That’s who it would be. Don’t worry, Eleanor.”
Eleanor sighed. Of course, Judy was right. And John’s receptionist, who thought she recognised Kathy’s voice, well she must have been mistaken. That’s all there is to it.
“It certainly seems like the man is determined though,” continued Judy. “I hope you told that old fart of an accountant to tighten up his security.”
Eleanor smiled. “Oh yes, I asked him to make sure that nothing happens to my money unless I authorise it personally. And he’s not an old fart, Judy, really.”
“I’ve never understood your misguided loyalty, Eleanor. That accountant of yours should have retired years ago. He’s older than we are. Just because he was your husband’s accountant….”
“He’s a good man, Judy. A good accountant. And his age just means he’s experienced.”
Judy raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure he’s a good man?” she asked archly.
“Oh Judy. Anyway, do you think I should ask Kathy about the phone call? Maybe she had some genuine reason to be asking?”
“No, of course not, Eleanor. She’ll deny making the phone call, and she probably didn’t do it anyway. Oh.” Judy paused for effect. “Of course! That’s it, you should find out the email address that the information was sent to. Perhaps that will let you know the identity of the mysterious caller.”
Eleanor frowned. “But it’s so easy to make up new email addresses these days. Will that really tell me anything? All I know now is that Daryl has some kind of accomplice, and that it’s possibly my daughter.” She felt a catch in her throat, and blinked hard to hold back tears. “What a horrible thought.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Judy said, sternly. “It’s not Kathy. And you have a plan to deal with Daryl, so follow the plan and don’t worry about anything else.
“Yes, you’re right, of course.” Eleanor took a deep breath. “What would I do without you, Judy?”
Judy rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know. You’d have probably gone off the deep end and run Daryl over in your car by now. You’re lucky you have me,” she smiled. “I’m not sure you’re quite cut out for prison, Eleanor.”
That night, at the dinner table, Eleanor felt particularly jumpy. She gasped when TImmy knocked over his glass of water with his elbow, and made a strange, squawking sound when Daryl dropped his knife on the floor. “Are you alright Gran?” asked Timmy.
”Oh, yes of course Timmy. I’m just a little highly strung at the moment. It must be all the excitement to do with Judy’s play. Their opening night is this weekend, you know?” It really was a lovely dinner, one of her favourites, apricot chicken. And yet Eleanor felt so anxious that she couldn’t really taste it.
Timmy sighed. “Yes, Gran, I know. It’s all anyone around here talks about at the moment. Gladys, Judy, Barry, even Joe was talking about it on the phone last night.”
Kathy looked up from her plate, where she was, as usual, pushing the food around without eating much at all. “Oh. Did you talk to Joe last night? Is he coming here this weekend?”
Timmy rolled his eyes in exasperation. Eleanor thought that the boy was perhaps spending too much time with her. “Yes mum. He rang here to talk to you. Where were you? He couldn’t get you on your mobile either.”
“Oh, I was out. I had an errand to take care of,” Kathy said vaguely.
“At night?” asked TImmy. “What kind of errand do you have to do at night?” Eleanor felt a chill run up her spine. What kind of errand was her daughter running at night time? She felt like she didn’t even know her any more. Kathy waved a hand, and took a small mouthful of food. Eleanor was about to press her on what kind of an errand she could possibly need to run at night time when Daryl interrupted, speaking with his mouth full as usual.
“Well I have some news,” he said, spraying small pieces of chicken all over the table. “A lady came past the office today and told me – my business has been nominated for a small business award. New startup of the year. There’s going to be a fancy awards dinner and all.”
“Oh, really dear, that’s great news.” Kathy didn’t sound very thrilled. “When is the dinner?”
Daryl took another forkful of food. “Not that long, actually. In about two weeks.”
“Hmph,” said Eleanor. “What do they base these nominations on? Is it like an encouragement award? For businesses that need a bit of a boost?”
Daryl laughed. “Well I don’t exactly know what they base it on, but they came past the business and asked me a lot of questions. Interviewed some of my clients. As far as I know, it was one of my clients who nominated me. That’s great, don’t you think?”
”Oh, yes, it’s wonderful.” Eleanor thought that Daryl had probably nominated himself. It was the kind of thing he would do.
“We should celebrate, don’t you think?” Daryl asked. “Didn’t we have some wine somewhere?” He got up and went to the fridge. There was a bottle of chardonnay on the bottom shelf that Eleanor was saving to drink with Judy some time. “Here, this will do won’t it?” Daryl opened the bottle unceremoniously. “Will you have a glass, Eleanor? Kathy?”
Eleanor frowned. It was her chardonnay after all, but it didn’t really feel right to be drinking with a man that she was plotting to kill. “No, none for me.”
“Kathy, you’ll have a glass, won’t you?” Daryl got wine glasses out of the cupboard. For a man who never, ever put anything away, he certainly seemed to know his way around her kitchen, Eleanor thought.
“Oh, no. I’d better not. Doesn’t agree with me.” Kathy looked at her plate.
“What? Since when? You usually love a glass of wine.” Daryl poured the wine into a glass.
“No, I don’t want any. Don’t push it Daryl.” Kathy pushed her chair back from the table and put her half eaten plate of food on the sink. Eleanor stared in surprise. Kathy was normally so mild mannered, especially with Daryl. It must be another sign of all of the pressure he was putting on her. The sooner she was out from under it the better. “I’m going to lie down for a bit,” her tone softened. “But it’s good news Daryl. Congratulations.” She left the kitchen, Eleanor watching her with raised eyebrows.
“I’ll have some wine, dad,” said Timmy hopefully.
Daryl frowned. “Nice try Tim. I don’t think so.” He drank his glass of wine in several gulps, shovelling in the last of his food. Then he poured himself another generous glass. “Nice wine, this.”
“It should be,” Eleanor said, rather grumpily. “It wasn’t cheap.”
Daryl laughed again, getting up from the table. He took the glass of wine with him, but left his empty plate sitting on the table. “Lovely dinner, Ellie, as usual. I’m going to watch some TV.” He paused on his way out of the room, and turned back towards her. “Oh, you’ll come to the awards dinner, won’t you? Would mean a lot to have you there.”
Eleanor frowned. She couldn’t very well say no. “Oh certainly, Daryl. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Two weeks away, she thought. The timing was quite tight, but she thought they would probably have carried out the plan by then. With any luck, Daryl wouldn’t be making it to his own awards dinner.
The next morning, Eleanor went around to Judy’s house. She knocked on the door, and heard muffled banging and swearing from inside the house. Eleanor was alarmed. What was going on? She was just about to go and call for help when the door swung open. Judy stood in the doorway in an enormous pink dress, layered with lace and ruffles, and with a giant pink hat perched on her head, topped with an arrangement of flowers. Judy looked like an oversized wedding cake that had somehow become mobile and escaped. She was wedged in the hallway besides what appeared to be a life sized cardboard cut out of a horse and cart, along with a jumble of other pieces of scenery and floral arrangements. Somewhere, behind Judy’s voluminous skirts, she could hear Giles barking. Perhaps he was stuck in the skirts somewhere. Eleanor burst into laughter at Judy’s wide eyed expression as she struggled to free herself from the hallway. “Oh Judy, is that your costume? It’s so dramatic and theatrical. It’s absolutely perfect.”
”Oh, do you think so? It’s exactly as I hoped it would turn out. I would give you a twirl so you could see how full the skirt is, but…” she gestured towards the clutter in the hallway.
Eleanor laughed again. “I do hope you’re going to be able to get out of the house, Judy. And poor old Giles, he seems to be stuck in your skirts.” Right on cue, there was a rustling under Judy’s skirts, and Giles managed to push his way underneath them, emerging with a triumphant whine. He licked Eleanor’s hand enthusiastically, then sat by Judy’s feet, panting with the effort of pushing his way past her dress.
“I’m sorry Eleanor, I would love to invite you in for a cup of tea, but we’re having a full dress rehearsal today, so I don’t have much time before I have to leave. Plus, I don’t think you’d fit down the hallway, to be perfectly honest.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right, Judy. But how are you going to get to the dress rehearsal without everyone seeing your costume? You really should keep the big reveal for opening night.”
“I’ve thought of that. Take a look at this.” Judy pulled a long black cloak from somewhere on her person and whipped it around her shoulders. It didn’t cover all of her wide dress, but at least it helped. “I’ll carry my hat, too, so that no one can see it.” Judy took off the hat and held it out to show her. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Well yes, it’s certainly… something. How are you going to get all of this stuff over to the hall?” Eleanor gestured at the horse and cart, and the rest of the crowded hallway. Giles was resting his head on his paws and drifting off to sleep. There had clearly been too much excitement in his life lately.
“Oh, don’t you worry about all of this,” replied Judy. “Jordan’s coming over to help me move it all. He’ll be here any minute. He’s even bringing one of his friends to help carry it all.” Judy lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You know, the boy has been so grateful to everyone who has helped him out with the gardens that he’s been looking for every way possible to help out around here. Isn’t that nice? All I did was point out a few plants that needed to be pruned, and showed him how to prune them. He’s really a lovely boy, you know. And Willoughby just doesn’t know what to make of the dramatic transformation in the gardens.” She chuckled. “Anyway, Eleanor, enough of me rabbiting on. Did you have something on your mind?”
Eleanor wanted to tell Judy all about Kathy’s strange behaviour, and Daryl’s nomination for an award, but she thought the better of it. “It doesn’t matter Judy, nothing much that’s important. I’ll tell you all about it when we’ve got time to sit down with a cup of tea.” She smiled at her friend. “I hope that the rehearsal goes well. What is it that you’re supposed to say? ‘Break a leg’?” She glanced at Judy’s voluminous skirts and hoped that her friend would not follow the instructions too literally.
Gladys poured hot water into the teapot, and waited a full three minutes before pouring the tea into delicate tea cups. Eleanor took a sip – it was a perfect cup of tea. She had decided to visit Gladys rather than just going home after her visit to Judy’s was cut short by Jordan arriving to haul props over to the hall. “It’s always lovely to see you, Eleanor. You’re always welcome for a cup of tea.” Gladys smiled at her. “And don’t you listen to what Judy’s been saying. I’ve hear she’s been telling people not to visit too often or to stay too long just in case they tire me out. You stay as long as you like.”
Eleanor smiled. “How have you been, anyway Gladys? Any updates on your health?”
Gladys took a sip of her tea, and Eleanor noticed that her hand was trembling slightly. She was very thin and pale, but she had always been quite thin. Her kitchen counter was covered in cards and flowers. Gladys sighed. “Oh, I really don’t know Eleanor. Some days it seems like the treatment is worse than the disease. But I have been feeling a little bit better since I finished the last round of chemo. I have another checkup in a week, so I should know then.” She paused for a moment. “Actually, Eleanor, I wanted to ask you something. Are you going to see ‘Hello, Dolly’? Judy has been telling me all about it.”
“Oh yes, of course, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I got a sneak peek of one of Judy’s costumes this morning.” She told Gladys all about Judy’s extravagant dress, and how she had almost gotten stuck in her own hallway. “I’m going to go on opening night. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be strong enough to go and see it, but I also know that I might not have much time left, and I’ve never seen ‘Hello, Dolly! So I bought a ticket to the opening night. Eleanor, I was wondering if you might come past and walk with me?”
Eleanor was touched. Gladys rarely ever asked for anything. “Of course, Gladys. It would be my pleasure. In fact, I’ll have a word with Rita, she’s organising the ticket sales, and I’ll see if she can arrange to swap your seat so that you’re sitting with us as well.” She told Gladys all about Joe, who was coming along to see the play, and about Zara. “Even Timmy is coming along. We would love to have you join us, Gladys.”
“Oh, that would be lovely Eleanor. And can I just tell you how wonderful your young Timmy has been. I know that he didn’t have much choice when he first started coming around to help me, but we’ve really struck up a friendship these days. He comes around a couple of times a week, and waters all of my plants for me, then he stays to have a hot chocolate and a chat. It really does the soul wonders to spend time with young people, I think. As long as they are nice young people.”
Eleanor had always thought that Timmy was a nice young person, although she would concede that there were moments when she had her doubts. He certainly seemed to have turned a corner now. “I’m very glad to hear it Gladys. You be sure to tell me if he ever gives you any trouble.”
Eleanor finished her tea, and said her farewells. It was funny, she thought, a visit to Gladys was always good for her perspective. She had been so absorbed with the issues facing her at home, but now they seemed less significant.
“Thank you for coming to visit, Eleanor. It’s always good to see you. It does me good.”
“And you, Gladys. It does me good to see you, too.”
On her way home, Eleanor was admiring the gardens – they really were looking lovely – when she heard heavy foot falls on the path behind her. There was only one person at Tranquil Waters who walked like that. She felt a chill go down the back of her neck. Willoughby.
“Hello Eleanor, how are you?”
Eleanor turned. Mrs Willoughby stood behind her, arms crossed across her broad chest. She was wearing a severe, khaki skirt which came down to her knees, and a floral shirt, which did nothing to soften her appearance. “Hello Mrs Willoughby, how are you?” Eleanor felt that by her age, she should be able to call any person by their first name, but somehow she never felt comfortable calling Mrs Willoughby ‘Karen’. The name didn’t even seem to suit her.
“Well, Eleanor, I’m very well. And would you look at this garden? Isn’t it magnificent?” Mrs Willoughby gestured around her. There were roses blooming on neatly pruned bushes, a perfectly square hedge, and a neat row of pansies planted down the edge of the garden bed, all blooming in shades of purple. There wasn’t a thing out of place, and not a weed to be seen. Eleanor smiled to herself. She was glad that her instincts about Jordan were paying off so far.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Willoughby. It is quite lovely. The new gardener is doing a wonderful job, don’t you think?”
Willoughby frowned. “Yes, Eleanor. He really is. And do you know, that’s the thing that really puzzles me. The boy was terrible, really terrible. He didn’t know a rose from a gardenia, couldn’t operate a whippersnipper or start a lawn mower. I saw him trying to trim a hedge with an lawn edger once. And now, all of a sudden, he is a genius in the garden.” She narrowed her eyes at Eleanor. “What’s more, whenever I turn a corner in this garden, there’s a small flurry of activity, and lots of people acting very nonchalant. Like they’re not actually instructing that boy on how to do his job.”
Eleanor laughed. “Oh Mrs Willoughby, that sounds very strange. Are you sure you aren’t imagining things? I mean, he wasn’t really that bad, perhaps he was just out of practice?”
Willoughby leaned towards Eleanor and spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “Do you know what, Eleanor? For some reason, I think something’s going on, and you had something to do with it. And perhaps Judy as well. And I’m going to be keeping an eye on that boy, you mark my words.”
Eleanor smiled. She was in a good mood, and had no intention of allowing Willoughby to spoil it. “Ah, Mrs. Willoughby, I assure you that all I have done is encourage the poor boy, who, you will agree, could do with all the encouragement he can get. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that?”
Willoughby frowned, but she nodded to Eleanor, then turned on her heel and stomped away.
When Eleanor opened her front door, she could hear Kathy talking in the kitchen. It sounded like one half of a a phone call. When Eleanor came into the kitchen, Kathy was sitting at the table talking on the phone, with half a cup of cold tea in front of her. She glanced up at Eleanor, then very quickly said goodbye and hung up the phone. More suspicious behaviour, thought Eleanor.
“Oh, mum, you’re home. Nice to see you. Well, I have to go out.” She gave Eleanor a quick kiss on the cheek, and gathered up her bag and cardigan, and hurried out of the room. Well, thought Eleanor, at least she wasn’t still sitting at home all the time. It was nice to see her with a bit more confidence. And it had been a busy day of talking to people, she certainly wasn’t going to complain about having the house to herself for a while.
Eleanor made a cup of tea, and then the phone rang again. She almost let the answering machine get it, but then thought the better of that idea. “Hello, Eleanor speaking.”
“Eleanor, it’s me, Vince.” His baritone voice echoed down the phone line. “Are you busy at the moment? Can I come around?”
“Of course, Vince. Is everything ok?”
“Oh yes, everything’s fine. It’s just that I’ve got the, ah, you know. The substance that you were after. That I was going to make for you. To deal with your, um, little problem. I know we agreed that you weren’t going to do anything until after the drama production is finished, it’s just that I’m finished, and I thought you might like to have it on hand.” He laughed. “To tell you the truth, it makes me nervous having it in the house, and I’d rather give it to you.”
“Of course, Vince, I understand. Well yes, I’m at home now, if you’d like to bring it around.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Vince beamed his big smile at her when she let him in. “Hello Vince, thank you for coming over. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Oh, no I’m fine. Thank you all the same.”
Vince came in the door, glancing around. “You have a very lovely home here Eleanor. Beautiful.” She glanced around. Aside from the cables and video game paraphernalia in the lounge room, Daryl’s running shoes in the hallway, and Kathy’s coffee cup on the table, everything was neat and tidy. She was very proud of her little home.
Vince cleared his throat, and then pulled a small vial from his pocket. There was an amber liquid in the vial. It looked ominous. “This is it, Eleanor. The poison. Just half of this vial should be enough to stop a grown man’s heart, but as he’s a big man, I’ve given you a bit extra just in case.”
Eleanor took the vial reverently. “Thank you Vince. It seems rather surreal, after all our plotting and planning.”
Vince put a hand on her arm. “Eleanor, a word of warning. You should think carefully and be very sure of what you want to do before you use this. Once someone ingests this liquid, there is very little chance that they could be saved, even if they got medical help straight away.”
Eleanor nodded. “Thank you Vince, I understand. I’ve still got a few days to consider things, as I promised Judy I wouldn’t kill him until after the drama production was finished. When I’m ready, though, do I just put it in his coffee?”
Vince nodded. “Yes. It has a slightly bitter taste, although naturally I’ve never tasted it myself, that’s just what I hear. The strong flavour of coffee should be enough to mask it, though.”