WHO WOULD KILL AGNES?
A Geneva Bradford Story
By Karen R Treanor © 2008
"It's really hard to believe," said Linnet Halliday, wiping zwieback crumbs from Margot's chin. "Who'd want to kill Agnes McCarty?"
"Half the town, I'd think," said Anthea Bradford, home at Elm Hill for the mid-term break from Northeastern University. She passed a wet-wipe to her mother’s friend, keeping well out of range of the sticky baby fingers.
"Anthea!" exclaimed Geneva, wondering if her daughter would ever learn not to say the first thing that came into her head, "Agnes was always trying to help."
"Trying is the word," said Anthea, detaching a bittersweet-chocolate Burmese kitten from the leg of her jeans. "Here, take this little monster."
"You never used to mind them," Geneva said. She had allowed the kittens into the kitchen from their own quarters to amuse Margot, which allowed the adults to have a few moments of uninterrupted conversation.
Anthea pulled another kitten from the wastebasket and handed it over. "I suppose the saintly Agnes would have let the kittens claw her to ribbons rather than offend their tender psyches."
"I wouldn't go so far as to call her saintly, but she did make rather a thing of being helpful,” Linnet said. “When I brought Margot home from the hospital, Agnes called in with a pot of chicken soup and offered to move in to the spare room to help out until I was back on my feet. Luckily Mother was there, so I had a good excuse not to accept the offer”.
"Oh, we know about that chicken soup, don't we, Anthea?" asked Geneva, with a smile. "The year Anthea broke her ankle Agnes brought not one but two pots of the famous soup. Luckily we still had a dog in those days, so…." she made a pouring motion with her hands.
"Nobody was ever killed for making greasy soup, but there has to be a reason for Agnes's death, don’t you think?" Linnet asked again. She had regarded her friend as the font of all criminal knowledge since the previous year, when Geneva had discovered the identity of two skeletons found on Linnet’s property.
"Whatever it was, it was most likely an accident, not a random maniac, if that's what's worrying you." Geneva said. "Byford's such a small town I'm sure we'd have noticed the burning eyes and mad ravings of a psychotic killer."
Linnet chuckled in spite of herself, retrieved the soggy biscuit from her baby and said, "I'd better get this one home for a bath. Thanks for the coffee and conversation. I’m sorry I can’t do that Sunday School class for you; maybe when Margot is older," Shouldering baby and carry-bag, she waved and left the big warm kitchen.
Anthea topped up her coffee mug. "Linnet's right, it's most unlikely anyone killed Agnes because of her soup. What do you think is behind it?"
"Chicken fat," laughed Geneva. "You need to be more careful of your pronouns."
"Pedant. I meant the murder, what's behind that? The famous 'they' say that Agnes's good deeds were just a cover for a love of snooping. Maybe she found out something about someone and they had to kill her before she told. Like in that episode of 'Diagnosis Murder' where--"
"Anthea! We don’t even know if there’s been a murder; you can’t believe what you read in the papers, not these days,” said Geneva, for whom the Jayson Blair debacle had been a defining moment in her opinion of the press. “Don't you have homework or a paper or something? Failing that, you could peel some potatoes for me, and slice an onion. All this talk of soup has settled tonight's menu: I'll make Kartoffelsuppe."
Later, dicing smoky bacon, Geneva considered the late Agnes McCarty’s death again. Anthea’s semi-serious comment that half the town was suspect was not without foundation. Agnes was a dedicated do-gooder who irritated more people than she comforted and was not above passing on tidbits that she labelled ‘news’ but which most would term gossip, malicious or otherwise.
Agnes used the excuse of weak kidneys as her entrée into other people’s bathrooms, and once there, ransacked their medicine chests with the finesse of Attila and his hordes. More than one local resident was certain that Agnes tattled about what she observed, and also helped herself to prescription painkillers.
She would volunteer to do the shopping for the housebound and then broadcast the contents of their pantries to anyone who cared to listen. Observing a young wife purchasing tampons at the local drugstore, Agnes had exclaimed, “Oh, Melanie, I’m so sorry, I know how much you hoped you were pregnant this month!”
She was once chastised for her blundering by one of the town’s more respected matrons, only to turn the mild reproof back on the speaker by saying (loudly, as always), “Oh, dear, I just never thought anyone would be offended by the truth; I guess it’s just that I’m such an open person myself--I have nothing to hide.”
“Not really a very nice person, and not likely to be missed,” Geneva said to Toby, the patriarch of all the Elm Hill cats.
“Na-yoh” replied Toby, sniffing delicately at the scent of bacon.
“It’s salty; it’s bad for you,” Geneva said, but dropped a small piece into his dish anyway.
She browned the bacon in her heavy pot, then stirred in the onions and lastly the potatoes. When it was all nicely combined, she added a quart of good stock, put on the lid, and left the soup to its own devices.
Sitting down at the large kitchen table, Geneva spread out that day’s newspaper and again read the lead story. “Woman found dead; foul play suspected, says Chief.”
The story went that Agnes McCarty, aged 54, had been found comatose at her home late the previous evening and died shortly after the ambulance arrived. Toxicology reports were pending, but poisoning was suspected. A pill bottle had been found in her bathrobe pocket, but as half the label was missing, it was impossible to say what the contents were.
Geneva made a pot of coffee and carefully decanted it into a thermos with plenty of cream and sugar. She set the stove timer and called up the back stairs, “I have to go out for a while, will you listen for the bell and turn off the soup, Anthea?”
She put on her jacket and let herself out into the brisk early winter afternoon. The branches of the elms that gave the property its name were nakedly clear against the painfully blue sky. A south-going skein of geese mournfully announced its passage, and on the stone wall by the barn a fat chipmunk looked expectantly at Geneva. “Maybe later,” she told him, getting into her van. She kept an eye on the little creature as she backed the van around and headed out of the driveway.
A few minutes later, Geneva entered the Byford police station and plonked the thermos down on the front counter. “Real coffee here, get it while it’s hot,” she called.
The door to the chief’s office flew open and Paxton Cole, all six foot four of him, strode into the front room. “Whatever you want, I can’t be bribed with a cup of coffee,” he snorted.
“I know that, “she smiled, “I brought a quart thermos full.”
“OK, just so’s we’re clear on that,” said the large blond man, taking a coffee mug that said “Pussycat” from under the counter and helping himself to the coffee. “Ah, that hits the spot. OK, whaddya want, Geneva?”
“Just wondered about Agnes McCarty. The paper says you suspect foul play. All sorts of strange stories are going around; I thought I’d inquire of the horse’s mouth.”
“Neigh!” said Paxton Cole. “The local press, as usual, are trying to beat up a story. What I said was that I could not rule out foul play, not that I suspected it.” Taking the thermos and the mug, he went back into his office. Geneva slipped under the pass-through flap in the counter and followed, shutting the door behind her.
“Come on, Pax, cough it up—what was in the pill bottle? What did the torn label say?”
“Geneva, hard as it may be for you to believe, the Byford Police Department can probably get to the bottom of this case—if it is a case--without you.” He held out one massive hand in a traffic-stopping gesture as she started to sputter. “Yes, I know you have been helpful in one or two past cases, but not this time. Yes, I admit you used to do my English homework for me in Junior High School. But this is a police matter, and your blandishments are no use. Please, go home.”
“Just let me look at the pill bottle. Please?” Geneva pulled the thermos towards her and made as if to stow it in her shoulder bag. Pax pulled the thermos back and refilled his mug.
The back door of the station slammed and a male voice said “I’m back, Chief.”
Pax sighed, spun a manila folder around and dropped a yellow pad and a pencil beside it. Raising his voice, he said “You just write a description of the missing bicycle, Mrs. Bradford, and we’ll see what we can do. I’ll be right back; just going to check if there’s space on the noticeboard.’ Taking his mug, the chief strolled out.
Geneva hastily scrawled a description of a Malvern Star five-speed on the yellow pad and shoved it to one side while she read the top page in the file. There was a 4 x 6 colour photo of a brown glass pill bottle, with a torn label. It said “Jimmi, for strong pai…” on the top line and “give in foo..” on the next line. Below that were a couple of green balloons, or perhaps the tops of wings or leaves.
Geneva hastily copied this fragmentary information. Hearing voices in the outer room, she shut the file and spun it back to Pax’s side of the desk. She got to her feet and tucked the thermos into her bag along with the information from the medicine bottle. She swooped through the pass-through and back into the public area of the police station, and said to the tall officer who was standing beside Pax, “Oh, hello, Officer Dooley, lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it? Well, I mustn’t keep you boys, I’m sure you have lots to do.”
“Never too busy to help a local lady,” said Dooley, taking the yellow pad with the missing bicycle information on it from her. “I’ll get this in the works today, Mrs Bradford, no need to worry The Chief about it.”
None of the possible responses to that seemed either appropriate or wise. Geneva scuttled out of the police station before Pax could say anything.
Back home, she checked the soup and took some bread dough out of the refrigerator to warm up. Anthea clattered down the back stairs, pulling on her duffel coat. “I’m going over to the Mall; can I pick up anything for you?”
“No, I think we’re all set. Supper’s just soup and crunchy rolls, or maybe a French stick if I can find the pan.” Geneva’s mind was only half-focussed; the other half was turning over the picture of the medicine bottle. Something was niggling at her, something about the few words on the scrap of label. She rifled her memory, but it yielded nothing.
Giving up, she searched for the French stick pan, finding it on its edge at the back of a cupboard. Geneva set the pan aside and spent the next ten minutes re-stacking the other pots and pans, feeling virtuous when the job was done and the cupboard doors closed properly. On the back of the French stick pan she found a mashed cricket, dry and desiccated. “Poor old Jiminy!” she said to Toby, who had come into the kitchen to see if the racket presaged something to eat. With an almost audible ‘click’, Geneva’s mind rearranged two bits of data. “Jiminy Cricket! Jimmi!”
The dusty pan forgotten, Geneva grabbed the piece of paper on which she’d written the few words from the torn label. ‘Jimmi, for strong pai…’ she had copied. “Toby, I’ll bet this is Gwen Murtagh’s old Labrador, Jimmi. Short for some fancy kennel name, Goldbrick Champion Jiminy Cricket or something like that. He died years ago, but he was ill a long time and Gwen couldn’t bring herself to have him put down. She spent a fortune on vet bills, and took him to every animal clinic in New England.”
Toby wasn’t interested; clearly this conversation wasn’t going to be about food. He turned tail and hopped into a fireside chair and settled himself for a nap.
Geneva went into her home office and clicked on the laptop. Opening the Yellow Pages On-line she put ‘veterinarians + Massachusetts’ in the search box and was rewarded with hundreds of entries. Scrolling down, nothing leaped out at her, so she tried again with ‘veterinarians + New Hampshire’. Fewer entries this time, but still scores of them. Just as she was thinking the task was hopeless, up popped “Shamrock Animal Hospital” in Rochester New Hampshire. Following the link to their website, Geneva saw that their logo was, not surprisingly, a green shamrock. Cut it in half along the midsection, and you’d have something very like the two green blobs on the torn label.
Almost without her volition, Geneva’s fingers keyed a phone number. “Gwen? Geneva. I wonder if you’re busy, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
There was a long silence at the other end of the line. Then a tired-sounding voice said, “I’ve just started a pot of coffee. Come on over.”
Fifteen minutes later, Geneva was sitting in a kitchen very like her own with a stoneware mug of coffee warming her hands. Gwen Murtagh sat on the other side of the table, looking a lot older than her 54 years. She had recently cut back her hours at the family counselling service to three days a week, but she didn’t look as if she were getting any more rest. “If it’s about Sunday School, no, sorry; no way are you going to talk me into taking that Grade Five class again,” she said.
“No, not that,” Geneva said, now wishing she hadn’t come, but unable to think of a way to back out. “It’s about Agnes McCarty. They found a pill bottle in her pocket. They don’t know where it came from, but I think I do. I think it’s a vet’s prescription for someone’s old, sick dog. And I wonder how Agnes got it.”
Gwen sighed and half-smiled. “They should call you Nemesis. Is there any local crime you don’t end up involved in?”
Unexpectedly hurt by the comment and its implication that she was a busybody, Geneva said, “I can just pretend I did in fact come to talk about Sunday School, and accept your refusal, and go home. That’s no crime, is it?”
Gwen shook her head and sighed again, the sort of sigh that has a sob very close to its surface. She put her coffee mug down as if it were blown glass and folded her hands. “I was cleaning house yesterday afternoon when the doorknocker clattered. It was Agnes, the last person in the world I wanted to see—you know how she would say she’d ‘just popped in’ and then stay for hours?” Gwen looked at Geneva, who rolled her eyes and nodded. Agnes’s ‘pop-ins’ had wasted more woman-hours in Byford than daytime TV. At least you could iron while you watched Oprah, but with Agnes you felt you had to put on an effort. God knew why: apparently nobody in town really liked her.
“I think we feared her,” Geneva said, half aloud.
“What?” Gwen asked.
“Sorry, half-thinking aloud there—I just thought what a time-waster Agnes was and wondered why we all put up with her. Was it fear, do you think? Fear of her seemingly innocent babble?”
“In some cases, undoubtedly. Other people probably felt sorry for her.”
“I interrupted you; you were telling me how she came to visit yesterday.”
“Yes, well, I’d cleaned the downstairs bathroom and had left a bunch of outdated drugs in a bag on the bottom shelf of the medicine chest. I was going to take them to the safe disposal bin at the drugstore. Then I started on the kitchen. I’d tipped out both my gadget drawers onto a couple of old towels on the kitchen table just before Agnes turned up, so couldn’t really ask a guest, however unwelcome, to sit there.”
Gwen’s voice sounded hoarse, and she took a long swallow of her coffee before going on. “I should have told her I was too busy to chat, but for some reason I let her in and put her in the wingchair in the living room while I perched on the arm of the couch, hoping she’d take the hint. She didn’t, and eventually I felt I had to offer something. She said if it wasn’t too much trouble could she have some of that lovely cinnamon apple tea she had brought me when I had the ‘flu last month, if I had any of it left. That meant rootling about in the top shelf of the pantry to find the blasted stuff, and by the time I got everything together, she’d been on her own in the living room for five or six minutes. It was only when I brought in the tea tray that I remembered I’d left several very sensitive case files from the clinic on my desk.”
“Let me guess: she’d been snooping?”
“Perish the thought! She claimed she stood up to look at my Christmas cactus and had a dizzy spell and stumbled against the desk, knocking over the pile of folders. Ever so apologetic, she offered to help me ‘put them right’. I poured the tea and tried to make polite chit-chat, worried all the while what she might have gotten into when my back was turned. I was thinking everything was all right when Agnes said, as if we’d been talking about it, ‘I don’t know about you but I think adultery must be one of the very worst sins. What do you suppose makes a woman betray the man who’s put a roof over her head and fed and clothed her for years?’ ”
“And did one of those case files involve someone’s adultery?” Geneva asked.
“Oh, yes, a truly tragic case, and nothing like as cut-and-dried as Agnes was suggesting. Just as if it was a promo for a movie, I saw in my mind’s eye Agnes making sly suggestions and hints to the woman in question—or perhaps her husband—and I saw suicide as a result of it. Or worse. While I was wondering what in the name of God I could do about this, what I could possibly bribe or threaten Agnes with, she simpered at me and said she’d like to use ‘the little girl’s room’.”
Geneva sipped her coffee and waited. Sometimes saying nothing was the best comment.
“So I showed her to the downstairs bathroom. I washed up the tea things and pottered about the kitchen, and after about five minutes, Agnes came out patting her hair and saying she really had to go, she could feel a headache coming on. ‘You know I’m a martyr to migraines, Gwen,’ she said, pulling on those tight leather gloves she affected. No doubt this is hindsight, but I thought her hands looked like grasping paws, like one of those clever monkeys they used to have on kids’ shows before the MSPCA got after them. ‘I think I’ll have an early night, I’ve got a busy day tomorrow and I want to be at my best,’ she said. And then she left.”
“When did you go in to see what was missing from the medicine chest?” Geneva asked, setting down her mug quietly.
“I purposely didn’t look right after she went. I knew her reputation and I thought, ‘if she stole something and is stupid enough to use it, be it on her own head.’ Then later on I felt bad about what I’d done, and I looked in the bathroom and right away saw that the bottle of Phenobarbital tablets was missing from the bag of old drugs. When Jimmi died I never got around to disposing of his last batch of medicine. I knew I should call Agnes and say I knew she took the pill bottle, and say it’s dangerous stuff, not safe for human consumption. She’d probably have claimed she didn’t have it, but at least my conscience would be clear.
“I dithered around for a while and finally rang about 8.30 but there wasn’t any answer. I couldn’t very well leave an clear message, so I just said, ‘It’s Gwen, please call as soon as you can, it’s important.’ I thought it was odd she wasn’t home, given that she’d said she was planning an early night, but maybe her headache cleared up—frankly, I didn’t really think much about it. This morning I saw the paper. She was probably lying on the floor when I rang. It was too late, and it was my fault.”
“Did the police question you about your message? Presumably they played back Agnes’s answering machine.”
“Yes, and I lied. I said I thought Agnes had borrowed one of my cookbooks and I needed it back.” Gwen got up and took the coffee mugs to the sink. “Will you help me find a home for Jerry? I don’t suppose they allow dogs in jail. He’s nearly as old now as Jimmi was when he died.”
“It would be cruel for Jerry to have to find a new home at his age, so you’d better stay out of jail. Get your coat, we’re going to see Pax. You’re going to tell him almost all of what you just told me, leaving out the unimportant bits such as your suspicion she was snooping in your family counselling files. However, you can make her complaints about her migraine sound as important as you like.” Geneva shrugged on her coat and slung her heavy bag over her shoulder. She wished she’d never poked around in this case, but it was too late for regrets. All she could do now was help Gwen make the best of the situation.
“But what about my lying about why I called her?” Gwen asked.
“You were trying to spare her reputation. Yes, you’d heard rumours about her snooping in people’s bathrooms, but you never thought for a moment that anyone would steal and use outdated medicine that didn’t even have a complete label on it. And when you realised what had happened and tried to do something about it, it was already too late. Let’s not make this any more complicated than it has to be, Gwen. The police won’t thank you for it.”
Gwen stood in the middle of the floor, looking a bit dazed. “But she’s dead because of me--I wished her dead, Geneva.”
“To quote my daughter, ‘you and half the town’. Gwen, if I figured out where the pill bottle came from, the Chief won’t be far behind. You need to get in first.”
Geneva went to the coat hooks by the door and lifted off Gwen’s winter jacket. She shook it in Gwen’s direction. “Come on, I haven’t got all day—and I’ve still got to find a teacher for that fifth grade Sunday School class.”
Gwen shoved her arms into the coat. “I really would rather go to jail than face that mob again.”
Geneva chuckled. Gratitude and relief were two emotions you could count on overcoming cool-blooded decisions, and she was pretty sure she could talk Gwen round after they went to the police station.
While she was there, she’d better cancel that report about the missing bicycle. How embarrassing for her if they actually found it--she’d sold it fifteen years ago!