A Prickly Case
 

 

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A Prickly Case 

By K. R. W. Treanor

 

Anthea Bradford was swept around the corner of Charles Street into a slightly quieter passage.  The wind behind her was wet and icy and she regretted having come out on such a night.

"This is the pits!" she said aloud, fighting with her umbrella, which seemed determined to eviscerate itself.

"You're not wrong! Come along, we can get out of the weather here," said a voice beside her, tugging her arm.

Anthea followed the voice: anything was better than remaining on the street.  Pushing through the double doors she found herself in a snug room with a fire purring away in the corner, and a number of tables and booths.

"Thanks.  I thought I was going to be blown into the river," said Anthea, taking off her coat and hanging it on a wall hook as instructed.  With a bit of effort she untangled her umbrella’s ribs and set it to drip in the corner by the door.

"Not a fit night for woman nor beast," said the tall girl, hanging up her own coat.  She had a long braid trailing down a back that looked like it spent a lot of time on a Nautilus machine.  She led the way to a table where another young woman sat, a book open beside her plate.  "Pull up a pew and have something warm.  I can recommend the chowder."

Anthea took a chair and looked around the room.  About half the booths and tables were occupied, all but one by young women.  In the far corner, two older men sat talking quietly over a bottle of wine, a chess board between them.

"I'm Anthea Bradford; thanks for giving me sanctuary," she said.   

"Hannah Rivkin," said the girl with the long braid.  "The bookworm is Marcia.  Behind the bar is Ma.  And everyone else will introduce themselves if they want to.  What brings you out on a night like this?"

"Visiting a sick friend at Mass General," said Anthea.  "I left my car at the Common Garage, thinking the storm would have stopped by the time I came back.  Wrong choice, but it's so hard to get parking near the hospital."

"You should have listened to the weather report; they said it would get worse," said Marcia.

"No point in listening to Boston weather reports, they're only right half the time," said Hannah with a snort.  "What do you do when you're not battling your way up Charles Street?"

"I'm a student at Northeastern.  Archaeology.   I’ll take your advice on the chowder, I think I missed lunch." Anthea’s stomach reminded her it had been a while between meals.

Hannah called, "Two chowders, Ma.  And bring some of your crunchy rolls too."  She turned back to Anthea. "How could you not know if you had lunch?"

"I forget sometimes—forget to have it, and forget if I’ve had it."

"That wouldn't do in my line of work.  I'm working on a sports management degree, and you don't get far in sport by forgetting lunch," said Hannah, ostentatiously flexing a well-rounded bicep.

"I thought you looked familiar!" You're 'Hannah the Hare'.  I've seen you run, you're good!  Are you going in for the Marathon this year?"

"Still thinking it over, but probably.  I've got an inter-college race to get through first, then we'll see.  Although it looks as if we'll have to run in skis, the way the weather's been."

"Han, I have to run, I've got ironing piled up to the roof.  See you later." Marcia stood up and slung a backpack over her shoulder. "Nice meeting you, Anthea, maybe I'll see you again."

"She's a good girl, but fanatical with the housekeeping stuff.  She even takes in ironing for other people, and gets a decent price for it, too.  I'd go around wrinkled from head to toe before I'd waste an evening at the ironing board," Hannah said after Marcia left.  "That's why I wear jerseys and jeans, you don't have to iron them."

“Oh, this looks good!" exclaimed Anthea as a wide bowl of chowder and a basket of rolls was put down in front of her by Ma herself.  "What's this place called, anyway?"

"Ma's Place, what else?" said Ma with a grin.  "We're a home away from home for young women in need of a reasonably priced meal and a bit of friendship.  My partner and I started this up a couple of years ago; it used to be French but we changed it to good plain New England food, and it's making us a modest living.  Eat up before it gets cold."

By the time the girls had finished their meal the rain had eased up at bit.  "I’d better go; it’s getting late" said Anthea, under no illusions about the safety of Boston's streets at night.

"That's a good idea.  We wouldn't want anything happening to a new friend.” Hannah tucked her long braid down the back of her jersey.  "I'll come with you part of the way. I left my bike in an alley up the road."

"You road a bicycle on a night like this?" asked Anthea incredulously.

"I meant my Harley," said Hannah, shrugging on a black leather jacket.  "Much easier to park than a car in a town that hasn't had any effective traffic planning since the British left."

"Should I put a bet on your winning the Intercollegiate, Hannah?" asked Anthea as they headed out into the raw night air.

"I'd say I'm a sure thing if it wasn't for Dolly Broznik.  Unless she pulls a tendon, she'll probably take it.  I might get second, though," said Hannah.  "Well, this is my alley.  Maybe I'll see you again.  Ma's is a great place, food's good and you don't get bothered by bozos."

Battling the wind gusts, Anthea drove up Commonwealth Avenue and eventually got back to her dorm in one piece.  Her roommate Connie was hunched over her books, chewing a pencil and muttering imprecations against her Eng Lit professor.  “I found a great place to eat, you’d like it.  Let’s plan on it next time we can’t stand what’s on the menu here, “Anthea said to cheer her up. 

“Sure, if I’m not in jail for doing in Professor Soulay with a hammer.” Connie growled.

As was usual with Anthea, all other interests were subsumed by work and it was some days later before she again thought of her friend in Mass General. "I should visit Jane; she'll be itching to get out and bored to tears, probably.  Can't be any fun lying there in traction.  If I do that I'll miss supper at the dorm, so I thought you might like to try Ma's."  She said to Connie, scribbling the address on an old library slip and put it under her roommate’s nose.

"Great, we've got liver on the menu here tonight and I was already thinking of getting a tuna sub or something instead.  Although I really should do something about that diet…”

“You have all your middle age to diet, forget it for now,” Anthea said, slipping on her rucksack and heading for the door.  “See you there at 7.30.”

Anthea spent an hour trying to cheer Jane up, which mainly consisted of letting Jane beat her with the traveller's chess set that they had managed to prop up on the imprisoned one's chest.  At 6.45 a nurse came in and took Jane off for some sort of unpleasant treatment, leaving Anthea with time in hand.  She ambled down Charles Street to Ma's where she was greeted like an old friend.

"I thought you might be afraid to come back to this den of iniquity." Ma said, plunking down a mug of coffee.

"It was the chicken pie that drew me back; it's my secret vice--although yours will have to be pretty good to beat my mother's. My roommate is joining me, she decided she couldn’t face dorm food tonight.”

“I'll wait to get your pie until your friend turns up.  Here, have the paper, you can read all about the mystery poisoner."  Ma handed over a dog-eared Globe and went back to the kitchen.

Mystery poisoner?   Like a lot of single-minded people, Anthea's grasp of daily news was patchy at best and she often went days without seeing a paper.  On page three there was a story about Dolly Broznik, the Radcliffe Flash, who was presently in Mt. Auburn Hospital very ill from what police were quoted as calling ' a form of poisoning administered in a yet unknown manner'.  Tests were proceeding and Dolly was expected to recover if her liver could repair itself. 

"Ma, isn't this the girl that's running against Hannah in the Intercollegiate?"  Anthea asked, going over to the bar where Ma was slicing some fresh limes.

"Yes, it is, and Hannah is real upset about it.  Without Dolly in the race, if she wins people will say it was only because there was no real competition.  Like the Olympics the year the Russians didn't show up."

Anthea scanned the rest of the article. "The police don't seem too sure if it's accidental or purposeful.  Or they aren't saying which, anyway.  "Laboratory tests are continuing."  So they don't know what it was, apparently.  Mysterious, as you say.”

The door blew open and Connie came in. "Hi, everyone!" she called, slinging a heavy school bag on the floor by the coat hooks and finger-combing her corn-coloured hair.

"Hi, Blondie. Coffee?" Ma offered, holding up the pot.  Like almost everyone who met Connie, she took to the girl at once.

"Great.  How's your sick friend, Anthea?"  Throwing herself into a chair, Connie smiled at Ma and started scanning the blackboard menu with an approving eye.

A cold draft and a modest curse propelled two women into the restaurant's warmth: Hannah and Marcia.

"Well, look who's here: the stray lamb—and a friend," said Marcia, a little too sharply to be funny.

"And very welcome they are, too" said Ma, coming along with Connie's coffee.  "Place like this can always use a bit of new blood."  Dropping her voice she said "Pay her no attention, Blondie, she lives in a constant state of PMS."

"I heard that and it's not true.  Well, OK, maybe sometimes.  Ah, hell, give us come coffee, Ma," said Hannah, pulling out a chair for Marcia and gently pushing her into it.  "We're a bit upset, that's all.  This business about Dolly has upset everyone--everyone in athletics, anyway.  Some of the runners are worried there's a mad poisoner in the pay of the bookies going around slipping something into people's sports drinks.  One of the contestants has already dropped out and five or six others are as skittish as a virgin filly.  Marcia wants me to hide out at my Gran's place until the race.  The world's gone nuts."

"It's understandable, since September 11th--" began Connie.

"I don't want to hear about it IF you don't mind.  It's time we stopped blaming everything from tooth decay to wife beating on terrorists, f'gawd's sakes." snapped Hannah.  "I need F-O-O-D not conspiracy theories; feed me, Ma!"

"Coming up.  You want a bowlful of live small animals, or just a still-moving slab of steak?" Ma queried.

"A rare steak and a big salad would be just dandy.  Thank you, Ma," Hannah said with a wolfish grin. 

"I'm really sorry to hear about Dolly, whatever the cause," said Anthea.  "I can see it would be really frustrating having trained yourself up to a high pitch to beat her, and then she doesn't show."

"Yeah, it's a bummer.  Marcia says I'm a shoo-in now, and I can't get the point across that winning really isn't what this is all about; it's winning over Dolly that matters. She's the best in Boston.  If I'd beaten her, I'd have really done something.  To beat the others, well, that was almost a certainty anyway, no point in false modesty."

"Is there any more news about what's wrong with Dolly, and how it happened?" Anthea asked.

"They seem to think it's some kind of toxic alkaloid,” Connie put in.  As three pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise, she added, "I have a friend who's in the lab at Mount Auburn."

"So did your friend have any idea how this stuff got into Dolly?"  asked Hannah.  "Not sent through the post like the anthrax spores, was it?"

"No, but the police took away all sorts of stuff, Kerrie said, like Dolly's drink bottle from her locker.  She apparently complained about cramps and dizziness after a practice run and then collapsed.  At first they thought it was flu, but she got so much worse so fast they figure it has to be some sort of poison."

"Probably something they've been spraying on the trees," said Marcia 'I hate it when they send those awful trucks around spraying for mosquitoes or web worm or whatever.  If it kills bugs it can't be good for people."  Conversation segued into toxic waste management and from there to environmental degradation generally.  Marcia was a font of knowledge about "green" pesticides and held forth about the virtues of pennyroyal as a flea preventative and talcum powder to foil ants. 

Anthea and Connie mostly listened and devoured chicken pie while Hannah had a large steak with pasta and Marcia had a virtuous bowl of vegetarian curry and rice.

"Gotta run, it's my night at the gym," Marcia said, giving Hannah a kiss on the cheek. "Don't wait up.  Be sure to take your folic acid." Grabbing her coat she dashed out.

"Planning a baby?" asked Anthea, half-joking.

Hannah made a face. "Not hardly.  Marcia's got a bee in her bonnet about the benefits of folic acid for the brain.  I take it to shut her up."

"What's she training for?" Connie asked.  "At the gym, I mean."

"Nothing; she does two nights a week on housekeeping, which mainly means being sure there are clean towels, hot water, and that no-one steals anything from other people's lockers."

"What gym is it?  I've been thinking I ought to join one."

"Barton's, over behind Mass Ave.  But it's a specialised gym, mainly for those of us doing pro and semi-pro athletics.  There's a running track and other stuff for specific training, you might be better to try something aimed more at general fitness."

"So Dolly and the other runners all train at Barton's?" persisted Anthea.

"All of us, just about.  Hey, I hadn't thought of that--if there is a mad poisoner on the loose, the gym's a logical focus.  Marcia might be in danger, too."  Hannah's eyebrows drew in as she considered this idea.

"But she wouldn't have a water bottle with her like the athletes--surely if she wanted a drink, she'd get one from a machine, or the bubbler, and that seems safe enough," said Connie.  "Anyway, until they figure out what Dolly got, and how she got it, it's all up in the air.  She may not even have got it at the gym. "

"They know but they aren't saying," said Ma, bringing around the coffee pot.  "It was just on the news bulletin, they said 'police are investigating the source of a toxic alkaloid which poisoned well-known champion runner Dolly Broznik yesterday.'  It went on to say Dolly is still ill but expected to recover--which must not be good news for somebody."

"It might be very good news if that somebody didn't intend to kill Dolly," Anthea said. "I still think it's possible some bookie is looking to tilt the odds for the race.  But presumably even bookies draw the line at murder."

Hannah shivered.  "Maybe it was an accident.  Maybe Dolly went to an herbalist, and drank one of those weed teas that are supposed to clean out your liver.  They haven't really investigated that avenue yet, have they?"

"I don't suppose they'd say." Anthea said.  "I know a little about police work, my Mom's been involved in a few cases with our local Chief of Police.  They tend to keep their cards close until they have enough evidence to pounce."

Hannah and Connie looked at her with new respect as a fount of knowledge.  "Is your mother a private eye or something?" Connie asked.

"No, she just has a bad habit of stumbling over crimes.  We kid her she must have been a prophetess or something in a previous life."  Anthea didn't really want to go into details, and distracted attention by reading the dessert menu. "I think I could fit in a caramel cream pudding."

"Listen, why don't you come back to my place for dessert?" Hannah asked.  "I can promise the world's best toll house cookies, and maybe ice cream."

"Yum!" said Connie, looking like a six-year old in her eager anticipation.

"OK, but not for long--I've got a paper to proof-read." Anthea was an unashamed nosey parker when it came to other people's lives.  It was this curiosity about how people lived that formed a large part of her initial interest in archaeology.  Others might grump about fitting pot fragments together: to Anthea it was a snapshot from the vanished family album of mankind.

Hannah said "We can walk from here if you like--no guarantee that you'll be able to find another parking space and it's only five minutes."

She strode out across Charles Street and headed towards the river.  Ducking down an alleyway, she led the way over uneven cobbles to a high wooden gate.  Behind the gate were a miniscule back yard and a brick wall with a pumpkin-coloured door in it.  Unlocking the door, Hannah said, "Welcome to our humble abode."

They were in a brick-paved passageway facing a flight of stairs.  At the top, a large narrow room ran from front to back of the building.  There was a bay window with a tiled floor, and in it were pots and pots of exotic plants that mostly looked like cactus.  One or two were blossoming.  Overhead a bluish light blazed down.

"Marcia's babies." Hannah explained.  “I’ll just grab the ice cream.”

“I’ll help,” said  Connie.

Anthea wandered over to the window to look at the plant collection.  There were a few things she recognised, but a lot of things so strange it was hard to believe they hadn't come from Mars.  All had neatly written sticks in their pots, bearing Latin names.  Anthea craned her neck and noted that a lot of the names began with "e."  Dredging through memories of her only botany course, she thought that probably stood for 'euphorbia', one of the most ancient of plant families.  There was something else about euphorbias tugging at the fringe of memory, but she couldn't quite get it. 

On the coffee table was, not surprisingly, a coffee table book.  The folio-sized volume looked--and was--expensive, Anthea discovered, looking inside the front cover.  She couldn't imagine anyone paying $85 for a book about spiny plants, but then perhaps others would find her personal library peculiar also. 

She started reading.  Euphorbias came in many varieties, right up to small tree size.  Most came from Africa.  Glossy photos illustrated various types.  Anthea would have read more, but Hannah and Connie came in bearing a tray with three bowls, three glasses and a cookie jar.

"Here we are, dessert enough for a family of diabetics" said Hannah.  Anthea dunked a cookie in a glass of milk and munched contentedly.  "Yum, you can keep your Black Forest Cake, there's nothing better than cold milk and home-made cookies.”  The conversation moved on to ‘great desserts I have known’ for a while, then Anthea said,  “ That's quite a collection Marcia has, Hannah.  Does she show the plants or just raise them?"

"Oh, it was worse than this, she finally weeded out a few recently.  No, she doesn't show them but she goes to some sort of club.  I went once and would rather kiss a pig than go again.  Talk about single-minded!  Nothing beats plant fanatics.   Anything you want to know about the care, feeding, propagating and biochemical properties of prickly plants, just ask Marcia."

"Just ask me what?" Marcia said, coming quietly into the living room.

"Anything about your spiny friends," said Hannah, offering a glass of milk to her partner.

"No thanks, I'm full.  I didn't know we were having guests."  Marcia didn't look thrilled to find strangers in the house, and Anthea caught Connie's eye and stood up.

"Thanks for dessert, it was great, but we have to be going.  See you again, perhaps."

Hannah looked as if she'd have liked the girls to stay, but Marcia got up and said "I'll see you out."

"Here's your hat, what's your hurry", said Connie as the yard gate shut firmly at their backs.  "Do you get the feeling Marcia doesn't like to share?"

"Maybe she had a bad experience in the playground when she was six," said Anthea, bumping into a metal trash bin and staggering.  She put her hand out to save herself and something pricked her palm.   "Ouch, what was that?"  Feeling something spiny under her hand, she picked it up gingerly and examined it in the dim light from the street.  "This must be one of the weeded-out plants Hannah mentioned.  Let's go, the wind's a bit nippy here." Anthea led the way beck to Charles Street and reclaimed her old Land Rover with a sigh of relief that it hadn't been ticketed. 

The following afternoon in the library, Anthea spent several unproductive hours in the botany section before finally finding a picture of something that looked pretty much like the desiccated plant scrap she'd picket up in the alley-way.  "Euphorbia andrewsiana….high veldt of Southern Africa….height to 80 centimetres….orange flowers, spines….milky sap….toxic.  This is it."  Making a photocopy of the page, Anthea went back to her room to think about it.

"Is this enough to accuse someone?" she asked herself, setting out what she knew on a piece of paper.  "Dolly falls ill of an unknown poison.  Dolly is a threat to Hannah's chance of winning the Intercollegiate.  Marcia works at the gym where Dolly trains.  Marcia raises toxic plants.  All pretty much circumstantial, but it's an awful lot of circumstances in one spot.  Now that I have such strong suspicions, I can't just ignore them.  If Dolly dies, it's murder, and if she lives, what's to say there won't be another attempt?”

Anthea retrieved the scrap of desiccated prickly plant she’d found last night.  She wondered if it had been weeded out to prevent anyone discovering that Marcia had had it in the first place.  I really don't want to get her into trouble if this is just a case of my over-active imagination.  And I have no idea how the poison got from the plant into Dolly, if that's what did happen.

Pondering alone was getting her nowhere, so Anthea picked up her phone and rang her mother.  “I’ve got a little mystery, and I think it might be right up your alley,” she said, and filed her mother in on the recent events. “So that’s the facts and the suppositions—the main problem is how the poison or toxin got into Dolly.”

"It might be a contact poison, like nicotine.  If so, it could have been put in her shampoo, or cologne or anything else one puts on the skin," said Geneva Bradford, getting interested in the possibilities.  "Or it could be somehow introduced into her clothing, so that when she started running, body heat and friction of the cloth worked the stuff into her skin. Like that poison shirt that what’s-her-name gave her boyfriend in Greek mythology."

"That makes more sense: the poisoner couldn't be sure Dolly would use the cologne or shampoo on any particular day, but she'd always wear her exercise clothes," Anthea said. “Thanks for listening, I’ll see what I can find out about Dolly’s clothes and taste in toiletries.”  After she hung up, Anthea folded up her photocopies and tucked them in her desk.  Tomorrow would be a full course load, and she’d have to put the mystery away for now.

.It wasn't until two days later that she picked up a newspaper and learned that Dolly Broznik was soon to be released from the hospital.  The article said the source of the poison had been identified, but gave no details.

“I need to get better information than this, but how can I get it?” Anthea asked herself.   Ma's place would probably be as good a source of gossip as anywhere.  She shrugged on a coat and headed for Charles Street. 

"Hi, Ma!" Anthea called as she went in through the door.

"Well, back again.  I must be doing something right," Ma said.  "Tonight we have Lancashire Hot-pot, which you'll enjoy more if you don't ask what's in it.  Set yourself down and look over the menu."  Ma waved her hand at the blackboard.

Ma brought a basket of her crunchy rolls and a carafe of water to the table.  "Suppose you heard the news," she said.

"What news?"

"The police were at Hannah's place: apparently they finally found out what was wrong with Dolly, and it was some sort of plant poison.  Marcia has all those exotic cactuses and things and they got it into their heads that she'd poisoned Dolly to get her out of the Intercollegiate.  It was pretty scary for a bit, Hannah says, but she talked them out of arresting Marcia until they checked out a few other things--but here's the girl herself, she'll tell you all about it."

Hannah blew in with a gust of cold wind, looking distracted and pale.

"Mind if I share your table?  Marcia's hibernating and wouldn't come out but I couldn't stand being cooped up tonight.  Ma told you what's been happening?"

"Yes, she did.  So tell me how you talked them out of arresting Marcia." 

"I merely pointed out that Marcia wasn't the only person in town with a toxic plant in the window, and that in fact there were some in the Gym itself which were much more likely to have been near Dolly."

"There are?  Why?" asked Anthea.

"I told you Marcia cleared out a few of her plants.  She gave some to friends in the club, and took a couple to work to make the front desk look a little less bleak.  No kids go there, so she figured it was safe enough--you don't figure adults are going to munch on toxic ornamentals, do you?"

"No, I guess not.  So anyone who knew anything about euphorbias might have used those plants to poison Dolly somehow.  Well, that should keep the police busy finding out, and leave Marcia out of the picture."

"If only it was that easy.  They still seem to think that Marcia's knowledge about the plants puts her in there as a front runner.  They say she could have brought the plants to work as a smokescreen.  Sort of a botanical alibi in advance, you could say."

Anthea was thinking furiously.  Almost all of the reasons she had had to suspect Marcia would work as well for somebody else, given that the toxic plant was openly available to anyone who went to Barton's gym.  As she spooned up the Hot-pot, which was excellent, she called up a mental picture of Euphorbia andrewsii.  Pale green, long leaves like spears, a freckling of paler spots, and spines on the edge of the leaves.  A thought struck her suddenly.  Fighting down a wash of excitement, she finished her soup, and then asked Hannah "Does Dolly use naturopathic or homoeopathic remedies, do you know?"

"Oh, she's always on a health kick of one sort or another--it's a joke about the gym that if you stop exercising, Dolly will be on you like a hawk telling you the benefits of her latest weed soup.  Why?  Why did you ask that?"  Hannah's eyes slitted as she stared at Anthea.

Beginning to see a possible way out of the mystery, Anthea exclaimed "We need to go back to your place to look at Marcia's books."

Anthea went to the counter and paid for the soup.  "It was very tasty, Ma, don't spoil it be telling me what was in it until I've tried it again some time. Let's go, Hannah, the sooner I check this out, the sooner we might have the answer.”

Trotting through the darkening streets, Anthea steadfastly refused to give any clues about her idea to her companion.

"Oy, we're here, I hope there's coffee perking." Hannah called up the stairs, locking the courtyard door behind them.

At the top of the stairs a pale-faced Marcia drifted by on her way to the kitchen.  "She's been like that for two days; I'd shake her if I thought it would do any good," said Hannah, sotto voce.

Going to the coffee table without invitation, Anthea riffled through the index of the book about euphorbias, found the page she wanted, and opened to the picture.  "There, that's the plant, isn't it?" she demanded of Marcia, who looked at it, then at Anthea.  

Her eyes widened.  "But how did you know?  That plant was long gone when you were here the other night."

"Now I need another book, let me see….cactus…..bonsai…..Mrs. Grieves herbal--that might do." Anthea took a book from the shelf and threw herself onto the floor beside the coffee table.  "No, too old.  You must have a--" she dashed back to the bookcase and scanned its contents rapidly.  The other young women exchanged glances.  "M-A-D" mouthed Hannah.

"Aha" Anthea yelled, grabbing a volume of "Medicinal Plants."  She paged rapidly through it.  "There, Aloe vera, that's it, that's what happened."

"Anthea, calm down, sit down, and tell us what you're babbling about."

"Don't you see?  There wasn't any poisoner!  She did it herself, without meaning to!" Anthea grinned triumphantly at the others, then realised they didn't have a clue.

"Look," she said, swinging the two books around to display the entries for the euphorbia and the aloe.  "If you weren't a plant expert, you could easily think one was the other. Both have long pointy toothed fleshy leaves.  Lots of people keep an aloe vera on the kitchen windowsill in case of minor burns, it's great for that, and lots of other things as well.  Marcia, does Dolly have any skin condition that you know of?"

A sudden dawn spread across Marcia's plain face.  "Yes; yes she does, she's got eczema on both arms!  She's tried all sorts of stuff, that's how she got off on the health food kick to begin with." 

"So here's my take: Dolly's about to go for her training run, she looks for her Aloe Vera cream and it isn't there, or it's empty.  She sees the plant, thinks she knows what it is, snaps off a leaf of two and rubs it on her arms.  She then trots around the track while the plant toxin works it way into her skin and makes her ill.  Not knowing what's wrong with her, the people in the emergency room don't think to scrub off her arms, why would they?  So she lies there getting sicker and sicker.  Eventually most of it rubs off on the sheets, or they give her a bed bath, and she starts to get better.  What about that?"  Anthea finished up triumphantly. 

"It sounds a bit whacky, but that could be what happened," said Hannah thoughtfully.  "Is the plant poisonous on contact?  Or would you have to eat it?" 

"If Dolly has excema, and if she had run out of her usual cream and was scratching her arms, any toxin could easily get into her bloodstream through tiny abrasions," Anthea suggested.  "Well, there's only one way to find out.  Come on, we're going to Mt. Auburn."  Ignoring the coffee and the chance of dessert, Anthea pushed both girls into their coats and hurried them down the back stairs.  "They were going to release her soon, but she may still be there.  Come on, hurry or we'll miss visiting hours!" 

Just before closing time three very pleased young women barged back into Ma's and ordered hot fudge sundaes all around.   

"Ma, Anthea is a genius.  She figured out what happened to Dolly without ever meeting her, and when we went to the hospital and tested her theory, it was a bull's eye.  Nobody poisoned Dolly; she poisoned herself." 

Ma pulled up a chair and sat down to hear the whole story.  At the end of it she said "That's brilliant.  Sundaes are on the house!" 

"I don't know how to thank you, Anthea.  Even if they didn't end up charging me, just having the suspicion hanging over me would have been unbearable.  I'd probably have lost my job, and we'd have had to give up our apartment.  You really saved my bacon." Marcia leaned over and squeezed Anthea's hand. 

"It was pretty simple once I found out you'd taken some of your poisonous pretties to work," said Anthea.  "You might say it was simply a case of 'Aloe, Dolly.' "