Murder at the Book Group CHAPTER 1
YEA, THOUGH I WALK through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . .
I tuned out the Twenty-third Psalm and focused on my mission: ferreting out who poisoned the current wife of my first ex-husband, sending her on a premature stroll through the valley of the shadow of death.
Scanning the assembled crowd, I looked for signs of guilt, hoping to divine something, anything, that screamed “killer!”
No divination came, but I figured that such insights took more than the time allotted the standard memorial service.
If only someone would pinch me and tell me this was all a bad dream. Given Dorothy Gale’s options I could tap my ruby slippers together three times, saying to myself, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home . . .”
Alas, I had no ruby slippers. Maybe I could find a pair on eBay.
In the meantime, like I’d done countless times during the four days since Carlene Arness became known as the “dearly departed,” I replayed every moment of that evening that had started with a meeting of our nice little book group and ended in tragedy.
And that had convinced me that our nice little book group harbored someone who wasn’t so nice . . . and that in this earthly valley there was evil aplenty to fear.
“THIS BOOK SUCKS. There should be a law protecting the reading public from such trash!” And with that Carlene Arness hurled Murder in the Keys into her fireplace, the drama of the action diminished by the lack of a fire.
“What is it you didn’t like about it, Carlene?” Helen Adams’s mild tone contrasted with Carlene’s strident one.
“Where do I begin? There was no mystery, no plot, and, get this, no ending! I finally got to the last page and expected the numerous loose threads to be tied up—but no, just blank paper. I couldn’t believe it! It just ends. I guess the author got bored with her own writing—completely understandable—and quit.”
Carlene paused, but not for long before continuing with her thumbs-way-down review, bracelets jingling as she waved her arms around. “And it was riddled with editing errors, continuity problems, and—and just plain bad writing. I want to read books that are well written,” she pronounced, giving her expensively cut auburn hair a toss. “And another thing—I don’t think the author ever set foot in Key West, but that didn’t stop her from setting this piece of trash there.”
“Did it at least have good sex?” Kat Berenger, Carlene’s stepsister, looked hopeful.
“It had no sex. The author effectively neutered the characters.”
Our group had its share of critical readers. Sarah Rubottom, a retired English teacher, often lambasted authors for poor writing. She’d issue her judgment with pursed lips and crossed arms, spelling curtains for that author.
But that night Sarah exchanged questioning looks with me. What was going on with Carlene? Her tirade was quite a departure for someone normally so soft-spoken and composed. Maybe her recent publishing success explained her more exacting standards with her fellow writers. Carlene’s debut mystery, Murder à la Isabel, a contemporary mystery set in Richmond, Virginia, was quite good.
Or, more likely, her uncharacteristic angst stemmed from her separation from Evan Arness, her husband and, incidentally, my ex-husband. I didn’t know if any of the group’s members knew about the split. I only found out recently when I ran into Evan at Target and he’d said they were taking a “break.”
As an aspiring romance writer, I felt more than a little sensitive to book trashing. I wanted to tell Carlene to get a grip and give the author some respect—poorly written or not, she had made a creative effort. I held my tongue as I rescued the book from the fireplace, where it had landed in a pages-splayed position next to a brass vase brimming with dried flowers. Returning to my chair, I picked up my jacket, which had fallen on the floor, and draped it over my purse before glancing at the paperback. The six-toed cat, icon of the Florida Keys, graced the front cover. I turned it over and skimmed the back cover—it looked like another cute cozy filled with eccentric characters. The author’s first name was Annette and her last name contained a long string of mostly consonants. I passed the book around.
Carlene carried on—and on. Aiming for a light tone, I said, “Did you ever hear of the fifty-page rule, Carlene? If you don’t like a book after fifty pages, give it the heave-ho.”
Carlene ignored my advice. “And the author uses that old standby cyanide, putting it in the victim’s tea. Isn’t cyanide supposed to smell like bitter almonds? So wouldn’t you think the idiot would get suspicious when her tea smelled like almonds?”
“Not everyone can detect the bitter almond smell. It’s genetically determined,” Sarah explained. “You either have the gift, or you don’t.” Several of us nodded and said, “That’s right,” indicating this was common knowledge. Apparently not to Carlene, judging by her blank look. Sarah continued, “And I’m not sure it would smell like almonds in the tea . . . Seems I heard that it can be smelled on the breath of the person who ingests it, but not before.”
Carlene regarded Sarah thoughtfully. “Still, it must smell like something in the tea . . . something off.”
I looked around and wondered if there were any gifted noses in this group. Did size count? At any rate, if anyone knew of a bitter almond–smelling talent, she or he wasn’t telling. “If you do have the gift you could offer your services at autopsies,” Art Woods, Helen Adams’s son and our sole male member, quipped. He ran a hand through his mass of dark curls.
I gave Art what I imagined was a knitted-brow look, but without a mirror it was hard to tell. The mere thought of observing an autopsy gave me chills. But if faced with a cash-flow problem an autopsy gig might be a welcome option. I asked the group, “What do bitter almonds smell like anyway? Is it a smell you’d instantly recognize, like something similar to the nonbitter variety?” No one responded.
“Maybe the tea, no matter what flavor, would mask the smell of the cyanide,” Helen mused.
“And where do you even get cyanide? The killers in these mysteries always manage to have it on hand, ready to dump in some hapless victim’s tea.” Carlene remained nettled by the author’s lack of writing skill. “It can’t be that easy to get. Wouldn’t you have to sign for it, like you do for medications?”
Art laughed and said, “Carlene, you need to use cyanide in your next book. Show everyone the right way to do the evil deed.”
Carlene frowned at her nails, but her French manicure looked fine to me. “That’s my plan, Art. I’m researching cyanide and similar poisons. In fact that’s why I read this one, to see how the poisoning was handled.” She added the unnecessary “Not a good example.”
Sarah, fiddling with her long gray braid, asked, “Remember those Tylenol killings in Chicago—when was that—back in the eighties?” We digressed into a discussion about the unsolved case involving a number of Chicago-area victims who died after ingesting cyanide-spiked Tylenol capsules. We all started talking at once. “Wasn’t there some Tylenol thing in Seattle as well?” “What about Jonestown—didn’t nine hundred people—?” The sound of the doorbell put off segues into the Jonestown mass suicides as well as the Seattle killings, the details of which eluded me.
Kat jumped up to answer the door. Her long platinum hair curled in all directions, creating an Einstein effect. Her black leather vest displayed well-toned biceps, good advertising for her job as a personal trainer. Leopard tattoos decorated each bicep, and leopard-print cuffs topped stiletto-heeled chartreuse boots. The chartreuse also streaked across both eyelids.
“Hey, everyone, this is Linda Thomas,” Kat announced as she shepherded the newcomer into the living room. Annabel Mitchell, a longtime member, followed. “Linda came to Carlene’s signing at Creatures ’n Crooks,” Kat explained. “Being a mystery fan, she jumped at the chance to visit our group. And, small world, she and Carlene know each other from their L.A. days.” Two weeks before, Creatures ’n Crooks Bookshoppe, a local independent bookstore specializing in mysteries, had hosted a signing for Murder à la Isabel.
I remembered Linda from the signing. Highlights like hers were hard to forget: a series of contrasting shades produced a tigerlike effect. Next to Kat with her leopard paraphernalia, I felt like I was viewing a surrealistic safari. Linda favored heavy makeup, eyes rimmed in thick black, shadow in a slightly paler black shade covering her lids. Aquiline nose. From the neck down, she was less dramatic; she wore a plain white turtleneck and tight jeans that she likely purchased in the plus-size department. I guessed her age to be anywhere between fifty and sixty, which meant she was around forty-five. Age estimation wasn’t my strong suit.
Carlene smiled, welcoming Linda in a gracious but restrained manner, a greeting usually given to a stranger, not an old friend. But, I realized, no one said they were old friends, just that they knew each other. And, although I doubted it, their reunion at the signing may well have been warm and heartfelt. Carlene started to get up, saying, “We need more chairs . . .” At that moment Annabel carried two chairs in from the dining room and set them next to Kat.
Annabel was dressed for success in a black pantsuit, pale strawberry blond hair framing her face in soft waves with an artful tousled look, silver jewelry discreet. Annabel was the first of our group’s three writers to publish her work, having written her first mystery during the midnineties. Her works fell into the hard-boiled genre, dark, gritty, and violent. Annabel lived in a duplex in the Fan, one of Richmond, Virginia’s many historic areas. Before Carlene’s marriage, she and Annabel had shared the common wall in the two-family house.
Kat introduced Linda to each member in turn. A few people expressed surprise at discovering that Carlene had lived in L.A. Others said they knew, but had forgotten. Carlene said that L.A. was, after all, years before.
Kat asked, looking first at Linda, then at Carlene, “How long since you two last saw each other?”
After a pause, Carlene said, “Well, I moved here in ninety-six.”
Linda looked amused as she said with an airy tone, “Sounds about right. It’s 2005 now, so that makes 1996 . . .” She closed her eyes to do the calculation. “Ten, twelve years ago?” No one commented on her inexact math.
Carlene returned to her earlier appraisal of her nails. Her anxiety level had ratcheted up a few notches since Linda’s arrival. Was Linda a possible agitator? Unless it was Annabel . . . although I couldn’t imagine why.
Linda fielded questions about her reading habits—who are your favorite authors, do you like cozies, thrillers, courtroom dramas, and so on. “Oh!” She looked stricken with a sudden worry. “I hope I didn’t forget my book for tonight.” She rummaged through her purse, pulling out a wallet, a makeup bag, a VHS cassette, a phone, and a tattered paperback with a title from Elaine Viets’s Dead End Job series, set in Florida. “Aha!” She stuffed everything but the book back into the purse. “I knew it was in here somewhere.”
Sarah said, “Well, Linda, it’s nice to have you with us. Before you arrived, we were having this fascinating discussion about cyanide, and—”
But Carlene interrupted with a nervous laugh. “Oh, let’s move on. We can continue the poison talk another time.” Turning to Art, she smiled. “Tell us about your book, Art.”
When Carlene and I started the Murder on Tour book group three years before, we wanted to stray from the practice of the numerous other book groups that met monthly and discussed the same book. Each member of the group read a different mystery based on a geographical setting, and we met every other Monday to “booktalk” our selections—a fancy way of saying we gave oral book reports, reminiscent of grade school. We met our needs to be both armchair detectives and travelers without having to suffer through someone’s vacation slides of Disney World. Our current literary tour of murder and mayhem took us through the American South, and tonight’s stop was Florida. With its intoxicating blend of steaminess, exoticism, and often strange goings-on, Florida provided a fertile setting for mystery aficionados.
Art returned Carlene’s smile, then gave us an account of The Paperboy, by Pete Dexter, a disquieting and riveting story of a newspaper family in Northern Florida during the late sixties. I made a note on the back of an envelope to add it to my to-read list. Art usually chose historical mysteries, but he claimed that Florida offered little in that subgenre and that, besides, he’d been wanting to read The Paperboy for a while. “Besides,” he added with a shrug of his bony shoulders, “the sixties are historical.”
I watched the interplay between Linda and Carlene. Linda’s steady smile telegraphing wry amusement contrasted with Carlene’s worrying a beaded necklace like a rosary. What was the history between these two? Anyone who could discompose the normally self-possessed and poker-faced Carlene was a force to be reckoned with. Intrigued, I continued to keep an eye on them.
Despite Carlene’s preoccupation, part of her remained engaged in the discussion. The rest of us shared our selections sans drama, tension, and author maligning. We “traveled” the state of Florida, from the panhandle to the Key Largo of Raymond Chandler’s classic of the same name. Helen raved about John MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by, the first in his Travis McGee color-coded series. She assured us that she intended to read every last one of the prolific author’s works. I added the title to my envelope list.
Eventually we wound down and addressed the next meeting’s theme of Appalachia. Helen reminded us that she had posted a list of Appalachian authors on the group’s website. She also agreed to host the group at her apartment.
“And I have a request to make—that you turn off your cell phones during book group. They’re very distracting.”
Sarah looked puzzled. “I didn’t hear a cell phone tonight.”
“No, not tonight. But often folks are getting calls. Some more than others.” Kat and Annabel were likely the “some” that Helen cited. Both appeared unfazed.
“Not me. My phone sits in the bottom of my purse, turned off. I check for messages once a week.” I laughed, adding, “That is, if I think of it.”
We agreed to put our phones on vibrate mode and Helen expressed her thanks. Then she took advantage of having the floor and launched into a blow-by-blow description of the pro-life conference she’d recently attended. Kat had warned me about it when I’d first arrived.
“Her big thing now is the whole stem cell thing.” Kat had sighed. “The woman just wears me out. And I’m sure Sarah will put in her two cents on the subject.”
Nodding in agreement, I had said, “We’ll all be giving Helen a wide berth tonight. Maybe Sarah as well.” Often I enjoyed hearing people’s viewpoints, especially if they differed from mine. But I avoided Helen’s endless soapbox speeches whenever I could, otherwise I endured them. Sarah was the only one who bothered to challenge Helen. Even though Sarah held conservative views, they sat far to the left of Helen’s on the Republican political spectrum.
Helen used her hands to emphasize her points. Her long fingers and a dangling thread from the ruffled sleeve of her periwinkle blouse distracted me from her earnest account. But loose threads and dancing fingers didn’t capture my attention for long, so I looked around the room, wondering if Carlene had added anything new to the decor since the last time I was here. Being a minimalist, she had more likely subtracted. Touches of burgundy and forest green accented the soft yellows and peaches of the conversational grouping of sofa, love seat, and oversized chairs. No knickknacks interrupted the smooth table surfaces, but a couple of large modern paintings and a sculpture filled up the wall space.
Just as Sarah started with, “Helen, don’t you realize the potential benefits of stem cell research . . .” I felt a tap on my shoulder. Carlene whispered, “Hazel, I need to ask you something. Let’s go to my den.” Then, flashing a smile at the others, she said, “Please excuse us—business,” and we moved off, leaving the others to suffer through the debate.
Carlene detoured into the kitchen to switch on the coffeemaker before we walked up a short flight of steps to her den. “I figured we could forgo the conference recap,” she grinned. “It could go on forever. And they’ll probably get into the childbirth tales.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled. Childbirth stories were a frequent staple of this group. They usually started with someone announcing the birth of a grandchild and included complete details of the pregnancy, labor, and birth. Conception as well, if they were privy to those details. Being childless, Carlene and I had missed out on a lifetime ticket to female bonding. In my fifty-something years I’d acquired husbands and cats, but children, not a one.
Carlene said, “We don’t have to worry about Art. He can busy himself with everyone’s books.”
Carlene’s minimalist leanings extended to her den. A Persian rug in a black and teal pattern covered the gleaming hardwood floor. Only a lamp, laptop, printer, and cordless phone disturbed the polished wood surface of the desk. Not a plant in sight, no pictures on the walls. An ergonomically correct chair and a bookcase provided the only other furniture. I wondered about the correlation between uncluttered surroundings and an uncluttered mind. Would it enhance my own writing to establish order out of the chaos in my den? Would I try it? Probably not.
“Hazel, I’m sorry I created such a fuss over that silly book. I get so irritated when people go on and on about hating a book.” Her voice, now reverted back to its usual near whisper, was so soft that I risked violating the standard conversational distance between us by moving closer. It was either that or take a shot at lip reading.
“Don’t worry about it.” By now I was more interested in broaching the subject of Linda. “So—are you excited about your friend Linda showing up?”
Carlene gave a brief laugh and said, “Well, no. To be honest, I don’t even remember the woman. It’s embarrassing since she seems to remember me so well.”
“Oh. So she wasn’t a friend in L.A.?”
“Oh, no. She says I worked with her husband. Maybe I met her at a work party. I simply don’t remember.” She spread her hands as if asking how she could possibly remember everyone she met.
“Looks like hers would be hard to forget.”
“I guess.” She waved a dismissive hand, setting off those dissonant bracelets. “I just finished an Agatha Christie. I keep reading them over and over.” Pulling a book out of her bookcase she offered it to me. “This one’s a Miss Marple. The Mirror Crack’d. Want to borrow it?”
Okay, Linda was off limits. I wondered why. “Oh, no thanks. I have a copy.” Carlene reshelved the paperback.
“Hazel, the real reason I wanted to talk to you, aside from getting away from Helen, was to share my big news. I booked a trip to Costa Rica for December. Georgia and I are going to stay with a friend of hers.”
“Oh, Carlene, that’s great. You’ll love it. So will Georgia.” Georgia Dmytryk was Carlene’s lifelong friend and the executive director of the Richmond Women’s Resource Center.
“I know you went there a while back. Maybe you can give us suggestions. Do you have time for coffee this week? Our treat. Maybe early one morning before Georgia goes to the center?” I wasn’t hot on early-morning activities, but I was hot on free coffee, so I agreed to meet Carlene and Georgia at Panera at Stony Point on Wednesday morning.
Then my eye was drawn to a couple of photographs on the shelf over her laptop. How had I missed them in this monkish room? I pointed to one and said, “I don’t think I’ve seen these before.” Neither picture included Evan, but I didn’t comment on my observation.
A smiling foursome posed next to a Christmas tree. Kat dominated the group with her abundance of everything: hair, makeup, cleavage, jewelry. Her twenty-something daughter, Stephie, took her mother’s flamboyant fashion statements several steps further with her riotous assortment of piercings and tattoos. Dean Berenger, Kat’s father and Carlene’s stepfather, wore a crewneck sweater and sported a buzz cut.
Carlene’s elegant style was apparent even with her tacky Christmas sweater and jeans. Her eyes stared impassively into, maybe through, the camera. I never tire of her mesmerizing eyes, which happen to be the same color and shade as mine, “money green.” My thoughts digressed along a path from green eyes to husbands, recalling one of my exes declaring an exact match when he held a dollar bill up to my eyes. While he was puzzled that they weren’t hazel, suiting my name, they failed to mesmerize him.
Besides our eyes, Carlene and I shared a number of physical attributes. We both stood at five feet four inches without shoes. We’d remained slim, but the pounds were creeping up in that insidious way that pounds crept. Our hair color belonged to the red family, hers a vibrant auburn and mine an autumn chestnut. No doubt her salon tab far exceeded mine.
“That was taken last Christmas,” Carlene explained, but didn’t elaborate.
“And what about this one?” I pointed to an eight-by-eleven image in a brushed metal frame. “This has to be your mother.” Despite the beehive and thick black eyeliner, the woman could only be Carlene’s mother, so striking was the resemblance.
“Father?” I asked, pointing at the handsome, smiling man holding a pipe, who didn’t look remotely like Dean Berenger. Carlene nodded.
A perhaps ten-year-old Carlene towered over an unhappy-looking boy. “I guess that’s your brother.”
“Yes, that’s Hal. I hate to cut this short, Hazel, but I’ve got to get the food ready. They’ll be winding down their stories soon and will want to eat.” True to my prediction, a loud and intense childbirth discussion was in full swing downstairs.
The rebuff didn’t surprise me as Carlene didn’t allow many personal questions. In no time the inevitable “it’s none of your business” messages would start, nonverbal but clear all the same. As a result, I knew little about her. That didn’t stop me from wondering if Hal served as the family’s black sheep, making him off-limits for discussion.
“Okay, I’ll give you a hand,” I offered with reluctance. I wanted to stay in the den and look at photos and ask nosy questions. But even if Carlene was willing to satisfy my curiosity, there were only the two photos anyway.
Carlene stopped at the door and turned to me. “Hazel,” she started, looking uncertain. “I have a, um, hypothetical question for you.”
She continued to look indecisive before finally taking the proverbial nosedive. “Have you ever made a huge mistake?”
“Mistake?” I laughed. “Of course.” My mistakes were too numerous for a quick mental scan. There were the failed marriages, Evan being the first of them. And more than one wrong turn on the career path. But huge? “What do you mean by huge?”
“The kind that comes back later to haunt you.”