Just Desserts

20Jul14

It’s time to give something away, from me to you – no bookseller in between. Months back, there was another controversy involving an author who hunted down a reviewer and harassed her. It sounded like a wonderful idea for a short story. So here it is.

UPDATE: I don’t recall which author-stalking-reviewer incident compelled me to write this story, but it pales in comparison to the latest story about a young author named Kathleen Hale. Anyway, today I am struck by the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

_________________

Just Desserts

The building superintendent–an elderly man with rheumy eyes and a bad hearing aid–told Detective Marks he couldn’t get the picture out of his head, that harmless lady, face frozen in death, all of her fingertips cleanly removed.

Marks stood amidst tired furniture in the parlor of the man’s abutting duplex unit. He smelled cat food and chicken broth, and wondered if a window had ever been opened.

“Nope,” the poor fellow said as he tapped his hearing aid, “didn’t hear a thing. I just let myself in about 10:30 in the morning to fix a leaky faucet, and there she was.” The fresh memory of it brought more tears.

There she was, Lillian Rockwell and her lopped digits.

The man wasn’t that much older than him. Marks wondered if this was what he could look forward to in his own impending retirement. Living alone, talking to the cat, yelling at the television as he watched the world sink into chaos. At sixty and with his condition, his reflexes and energy were fading. He’d lost confidence, begun to hesitate in a job where hesitation got you killed. Living was far preferable to the alternative, even if he was just borrowing time. At least his daughter was back with him, for now.

“Did she have any visitors?” His eyes scanned the apartment, more from habit than suspicion.

“Don’t recall a single one,” the old man said. “I only know she taught the youngsters in school and sang in the choir at St. Vincent’s. Pretty young lady, but I never saw a single visitor.”

Marks ran the old fellow through the usual questions, thanked him, gave him a card, and rejoined his partner at the crime scene next door.

***

Teresa Bond watched the coroner’s men put the body bag on a stretcher and wheel it out. The forensic team continue to comb, dust and photograph.

“What’s your first impression?” Marks asked her.

Less than a month on the job and on her first murder case, the upstart rookie appreciated being asked. An aspiring FBI recruit who’d dropped out to return home and care for her dying father, she hitched on to the local force and partnered with the grizzled veteran for the final lap of his sterling career. She nodded at a well-worn coffee table, where a tea tray held two empty cups and a plate with crumbs.

“She had a visitor, but someone she knew, maybe. They had a cookie or two, and the cups are empty, so the visitor stayed for some time.” She nodded to the corner. “The second chair there appears recently sat-in.”

“Very good.” He bent over the plate and sniffed it. “Macaroons,” he said.

“Ugh, I hate macaroons. The smell of almonds makes me ill.”

“Why’s that?”

She blinked and shook her head. “Old story involving Spring break and a bottle of Amaretto. Not my proudest moment.”

“Say no more,” he said. “So, no sign of struggle or forced entry.”

“None.” She nodded toward the back of the apartment. “The kitchen is immaculate. There’s no sign of blood anywhere else but here, in the chair where she was found.”

Found reclined and duct taped into an old, overstuffed chair, all ten fingers stumped at the first knuckle, neat, dark circles of blood on the worn but clean carpet beneath.

“What’s the ME’s first impression?”

“Probable poisoning,” she said. “The surgery done shortly after death.”

“To spare the victim the pain?”

She cringed. “Or keep the screaming down.”

They glanced at the empty cups and plate.

“Anything about the wounds?” he asked.

“Cuts were clean, made with some degree of care, maybe even knowledge of anatomy. Kitchen or gardening shears, maybe. Not a knife.”

“Kitchen or gardening shears,” he said.

***

Marks and Bond divided the interviews of Lillian Rockwell’s former workmates at the charter school where she’d taught for thirteen years. Marks took the Principal, Walter White. Bond started with the faculty.

According to White, Miss Lillian, as the children called her, was a model of perfection. Even tempered, empathetic, kind to all, and dedicated to her profession.

“Miss Lillian was the teacher every principal dreams of having,” White said. His eyes were red and tired, his thin hair askew. “She loved the children and they loved her.”

“What did she teach?”

“Our school runs through seventh grade. She taught English literature and expository writing for the sixth and seventh grade students. And she taught a class in computer science.”

“Did she ever have any problems with difficult students?”

“We have no difficult students, detective. All of our students are highly motivated. Some of them require more help than others, but Miss Lillian was patient and supportive of them. She expected them to give their best, and she would not tolerate laziness. They responded. We have had many ESL students go on to top boarding schools on scholarships. She was simply the best.”

“Did she socialize with the other faculty outside of school?”

White frowned and thought a moment. “I’m not aware of her social activities, detective. We have a long day here, and aside from the occasional holiday party, which involves cookies and punch, I don’t know what she did outside of the school.”

“You’ve never seen her with a boyfriend, that sort of thing?”

He smiled wanly. “No, I’m afraid not. I simply have no way of knowing.”

“You said she taught computer science?”

“Yes, very much an introductory class. Familiarity with the standard Office suite, basic elements of HTML, blogging, social media. That sort of thing.”

“I don’t know much about that area.”

“I am barely proficient myself, as my faculty loves to remind me. You might have better luck with her colleagues.”

“Let’s see if you’re right.”

***

Principal White ushered Marks to the faculty lounge, where Bond was interviewing three individuals, two female, one male. They looked to be in their late twenties to early thirties, sitting in a row on the forward edge of a well-worn couch, hands fidgeting. Bond faced them, seated in a school chair built for a child. Bond introduced them to her partner, and continued her inquiry.

“You said Miss Lillian was an avid reader?” she asked the woman named Miriam, who wore Birkenstocks, a sweater vest, and close cropped brown hair.

“Yes, voracious. As much as a novel a day, sometimes.”

“Goodness, that’s a lot,” Bond said. “What did she read, specifically?”

“Cheesy romance,” said the other woman, Alice, in the flowery dress.

“Cheesy romance?” Marks asked.

“Yes, as in bodice rippers.” Bond blushed.

“And a lot of ebooks,” Miriam said.

“Ebooks,” Bond repeated.

“Yes,” Miriam said. “Cheap, ninety-nine cent ebooks. Mostly from Amazon.”

“Amazon?” asked Marks.

Bond regarded her partner as though he was stepping out of a cave. “Yes, Amazon. As in, the largest bookseller on the planet.”

“I had no idea,” he said.

The three teachers looked at Bond with sympathy.

Bond glanced at Marks. Her eyes said shut up. To the women, she asked, “Did Miss Lillian spend any time at school on the Internet?”

Miriam and Alice shared a confounded look and shook their heads.

“She didn’t have a weblog or use social media?” Bond asked.

Edward in the cardigan sweater said, “We don’t really have time for any of that here at school.”

“Did you socialize with her outside of school?”

More empty looks. “We pretty much keep to our own lives, detective,” said Miriam. The others nodded.

Miriam, Alice and Edward knew precious little about their workmate, except for her reading habits, which had been discerned through casual lunchtime conversations. That and her ever present Kindle.

As the detectives walked to their vehicle, Marks turned to Bond and asked, “Bodice rippers?”

“I am not explaining,” she said, her cheeks flushed.

***

On the way from the charter school to the station, Marks brought his protégée back to the victim’s apartment for another look.

“What have we learned?” the veteran asked.

“We learned that she was an avid reader of ebooks and owned a Kindle.”

“Ebooks being electronic versions of printed books, read on a device called a Kindle.”

Bond stared at her partner and grinned. “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

“I am not a complete Neanderthal.” Marks hesitated, shifted to his other foot. “I use the public library.”

She smiled and shook her head. “You’re forgiven for missing the past decade, detective.”

The remark stung, but he kept quiet. “So, have we found her Kindle device?”

Bond pulled a sheet of paper out of a file folder and passed it. Marks scanned the inventory.

No Kindle device.

“Do you notice anything else?” he asked.

She appreciated his invitation, even if she did feel slightly patronized. “Yes,” she said. She moved to the sitting room where Lillian Rockwell had been found. She pointed to an end table in the corner, next to a clean, slightly threadbare couch. “See that?”

On the back corner of the table, partially hidden by an oversized lamp, a small, thin black box sat, a wire running from the back down to the floor and into a wall fitting. “Do you know what that is?”

Marks squinted, like the reduced light would bring him an answer. “Have something to do with the Kindle device?”

She stifled a smirk. “It’s a wireless router. It allows a user to access the Internet without being plugged into a hardwire.”

“Okay,” he said. “So where’s the computer?”

“Where’s the computer? Where’s the cell phone? Where’s the Kindle?”

Marks scanned the sheet. “Nothing here.”

They paced through the apartment again. No other Internet outlets, just the one on the floorboard in the sitting room. No cable television, telephone outlets.

“She either didn’t watch any television or watched everything on her computer.”

“You can do that?”

Bond frowned. “You really do live in the Stone Age.”

“I was born in the Stone Age. I’m entitled to my ignorance.”

“You can watch practically anything you want on a computer,” she said. “And you don’t need a land line telephone anymore. Just a cell phone.”

“I’ll be damned.”

They moved into the kitchen.

He opened an upper cabinet door.

“What are you looking for?”

“The cookie package. She served macaroons. There’s no package.” He moved from cupboard to cupboard. “The lady has no visitors to speak of. Except this day, she has a visitor, and she buys macaroons for the occasion. No other cookies, sweets, chocolate, candy in the house. Look at this,” he said, pointing into a cupboard full of foodstuffs. “Quinoa? What the hell is quinoa?” He began taking the packages down one at a time. “Gluten free rice pasta. Gluten free soup. Gluten free bread.”

“She’s allergic to gluten. Macaroons have no flour.”

Marks nodded and smiled. “She bought those macaroons because she could share them with her guest.”

Bond smiled back. “She was expecting someone she knew, and she had put out the welcome mat.”

“And this someone she knew poisoned her, cut off her fingers and stole her computer, her telephone and her Kindle device?”

“It’s a theory,” she said, a little defensively.

He rummaged through the trash, pulled out a balled up, white wax paper bag, un-balled it, opened and sniffed. “Yup, this was the bag all right.”

“What if the guest brought the macaroons, knowing she was allergic to flour?” she asked.

He frowned. “But why would someone bring cookies to the victim before murdering her?” Marks eyes scanned the kitchen one more time.

“No logic in irrational behavior,” she said.

“I’ll find the bakery that sold the macaroons. You see if you can discover what she’s been buying on Amazon.”

“You think her buying habits might be connected to this?”

“We have nothing else to go on but bodice rippers and macaroons. Might as well chase down every lead.” He turned to leave, and hesitated. “Some day, you’re going to have to explain this ‘bodice ripper’ thing to me.”

Bond grimaced. “Not on your life.”

***

According to his sources, a popular bakery located a mile from Rockwell’s apartment made the best macaroons in the city. There were other bakeries closer that may have made them, too. But Charlie Marks had a hunch that if Lillian Rockwell went to a special effort to entertain a guest, her reportedly kind and generous nature would compel her to find the best macaroon she could.

He followed the smell of baking bread for a half-block to Giordano Bakers & Confectioners, Est. 1926. He entered, and spotted a burly, balding middle-aged man in a white apron behind the counter, speaking on the telephone in an accented voice with a pitch like he’d swallowed a party favor.

Marks browsed while he eavesdropped. He examined a plaque on the wall with a sepia toned lithograph of a handsome Italian man with a sweeping handlebar mustache. Text below said the business had been in that same location since Pasquale Giordano opened the store two years after landing at Ellis Island. Glass cases lined the walls, full of confections, cakes, pastries and cookies. The air was sticky with sugar. He scanned the cases until he found a stack of macaroons. At three bucks each, they ought to be good.

The man finished his call, asked Marks, “What can I get youze?”

“You related to Pasquale?” Marks asked, nodding toward the plaque.

“Grandson, Paulino,” he said. “Been in charge twenny-tree years,” he wheezed.

Marks kept up the small talk long enough, ordered a half-dozen macaroons. As Paulino put them in a bag and rang them up, Marks identified himself, showed his badge, explained his true mission, described Miss Rockwell, the macaroons, and the likely date of her visit.

The baker scowled briefly. “You know how many people buy my macaroons? I sell at least tree dozen on a bad day. You think I can remember every customer?”

“I know this is a long shot, but it’s very important. Only two cookies, maybe three. One person.”

“My memory, she’s good, but you asking a lot.” He stared at the macaroon plate. “One lady, she never been in before, but not a small lady like you describe. Large woman.” He raised his hands above his head. “Big hair, like old style. What you call it, beehive? Not very attractive.” He shook his head at the shame of it. “She ask for two macaroons. She tell me she buy the macaroons for a special friend.”

“Friend or visitor?”

“I tink she say friend.”

“Did she say who the friend was?”

“Hey,” he said, “I’m so nosy I ask new customer her personal business?”

Marks quizzed him a little more, but Paulino’s good memory was exhausted. He thanked the baker for the macaroons and headed back to the station. He ate one of the macaroons on the walk, and left the bag on the duty sergeant’s desk, so the smell wouldn’t bother Bond.

***

At her desk, Teresa Bond’s forehead was fixed in deep wrinkles, her eyes pinched as she peered at her computer screen. Marks took his seat at the desk facing hers, waiting for her to look up.

“What’s so interesting?”

Bond made big eyes and fanned her face. “Cheesy romance is not what I call this.”

“What is it?”

“The stuff in Miss Rockwell’s Kindle library. It’s smut. They call it ‘erotica,’ but it’s porn in my book. And you want my frank opinion, anyone who writes that badly deserves a lot worse than a one star review.”

Marks gaped at his partner.

“Hey, I had to look, okay?”

“Like watching a train wreck?”

“It’s awful.”

“How’d you find it?”

“I faxed a subpoena to the Amazon legal department this morning, spent twenty minutes on the phone with one of their lawyers. Amazon handed over her account password, I’ve been reading for two hours.”

“Reading pornography?”

She tossed a pencil at him. “No, her reviews.”

“Reviews?”

“Under the pseudonym, ‘Marquesa de Sade.’ As in Marquis de Sade, it seems.”

“Oh?”

“You know the Marquis de Sade is where the word ‘sadism’ comes from?”

“Since it happened in the 17th century, I am aware of it.”

“Well, Miss Lillian might have been a sweet and loving teacher and a choir-singing wallflower in real life, but when she reviewed books on Amazon, she was a bitch on wheels.”

“Really, huh?”

“She’s written over two hundred one-star reviews in the last year alone. All on erotica.”

“One star reviews.”

Bond rolled her eyes again. “That’s right, my favorite Luddite. A one-star review is the lowest grade a reader can give a book. It’s like a spit in the eye. Some can be pretty harsh, but Miss Lillian’s were blistering.”

“So bad they’d incite murder?”

Bonds eyes focused on the screen. “Here’s one: ‘the author has an unfortunate habit of describing the act of copulation as though it were a lab exam in an anatomy class. Rather than being aroused, I was compelled to scrub my hands.’”

“Ouch.”

“Here’s another: ‘I don’t know if the typos and spelling errors are the sign of a poor craftsman or a sticky keyboard, but it’s obvious where her priorities lie, and it isn’t in her prose.’”

Marks blushed, speechless.

She pushed away from the screen, into the back of her chair. “Is it still that hard to imagine?”

“Of course it is. A few sharp barbs, vulgar as they are, should not incite mayhem and murder.”

“Well, imagine the women that write this stuff,” she said.

Marks felt as though he were in quicksand. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Look at it this way. You’re a desperate housewife and mother, trapped in your dreary little world, shuttling kids and cleaning up after a slob of a husband. All you have to escape your miserable life are trashy novels. Then one day, Amazon comes along and tells you you, too, can become a bestselling author. So you start writing and publishing your own erotic fantasies. Like that Fifty Shades lady.”

“Fifty Shades lady?”

“Never mind. So anyway, against all reasonable expectation, people start to buy it. Your sales climb. Your blog gets hundreds of visitors. Your Facebook fans and Twitter followers expand. You begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. This is your road out of despair. Like winning a lottery ticket. You’ll be rich and famous, finally able to tell that lunkhead you married to hit the road. Then some anonymous critic trashes your novel. You panic from the fear that one review will kill sales, and your dreams along with it. You’re not going to let someone kill your dreams.”

Marks took in Bond’s impressive tableau. “It’s one thing to give someone a piece of your mind. Another entirely to poison her and hack her fingers off, don’t you think?”

“Maybe she brought the cookies as a bribe, try to talk the evil reviewer into deleting or changing the review. Lillian refuses, the author snaps.”

“Possible, I suppose,” he said.

Bond returned her eyes to the screen. “Well, it’s the best lead we’ve got right now, so I’m inclined to follow it up.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m identifying the author of every book she reviewed, then I’ll determine their geographical location, chart them according to proximity, and start at the top.”

“You pursue that, then. I’ve got another idea.”

Bond peered over the top of the laptop screen.

“I smell almonds.”

***

With a little help from an assistant librarian he guessed to be around twenty-five, Marks found what he was after in less than an hour. He left with a grainy print-out picture of a doughy, mid-fifties woman with a mountain of hair, wearing a dress that looked like bathroom curtains. A quick return visit to the bakery and Paulino confirmed her identity. A stop at the Town Clerk’s office and he had an address.

Gladys Huff, pen name Ruby Diamond, opened the front door of a forlorn crackerbox on a crowded cul-de-sac at the edge of town. The house itself was shabby and faded, but the rose bushes in the front had been given obvious care and attention.

Marks introduced himself, displayed his badge, and observed a brief look of shock on Gladys Huff’s face.

“Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”

The face relaxed into a wry smile. “I didn’t expect you for quite some time,” she said, and invited Marks to join her for tea.

***

Teresa Bond clicked save on an excel file of 217 authors, ranked by distance from the Rockwell apartment, Amazon rankings and number of one star reviews. She was second-guessing her methodology and capacity to execute it when the desk sergeant notified her that her partner had a suspect in Interview Room 3.

“If you would like to join him,” he said, with a sarcasm she didn’t appreciate.

She saved her file, tucked the laptop under her arm and hurried down the hallway to the door with a “3” stenciled on it. She knocked lightly twice and entered a small room of bare white walls, linoleum floor and blinding fluorescent light. Marks sat across a bare table from a plain woman with cotton candy hair and mascara-streaked rivers running down puffy cheeks. Marks introduced her to Ms. Gladys Huff.

“Diamond, please. Ruby Diamond,” she said in between sobs.

***

Bond slid into a plastic seat along the back white wall. Her partner faced Ruby Diamond, hands folded neatly on the tabletop, but relaxed. He asked her questions in a warm, sympathetic voice, as a story listener would ask the storyteller in the course of the telling.

“Why cyanide?”

“I got the idea from A Pocketful of Rye by Agatha Christie,” she said, as though she was sharing a mischievous secret at her kitchen table. “I had stalked the subject for some time before I hatched my diabolical plan. In several trips to the market, she never bought any bread products. I wisely deduced that she suffered from Celiac’s Disease, and I was struck by an inspiration.” An eyebrow rose to punctuate her cleverness.

“Macaroons,” Marks said.

Macaroons, Bond said to herself.

“You wrote about macaroons, Ruby,” he said, as though he had discovered an obscure truth instead of a big, fat confession. “And how cyanide has an almond smell.”

“I most certainly did, detective Marks.”

“Call me Charlie.”

She reached across the table and patted his hand. “Of course, Charlie. Yes, I did write about macaroons. They were employed in a–ahem–shall we say, naughty manner in my bestseller, Twisted Sheets.”

“You wrote about it on your blog, too,” he said.

“I did indeed,” she said, stealing another pat, rewarding her newest fan for his knowledge of her work. “I remember the moment it occurred to me that macaroons were one of the only cookies the Marquesa might eat.”

“And that it would-”

“Hide the smell of the cyanide! Yes, how delicious!”

“What was that feeling like?”

Ruby Diamond’s eyes scanned the ceiling for inspiration. “Poetic.”

“Poetic?”

Her eyes followed something invisible. “Yes, poetic. A sadist tortures and murders as thought she is invincible. It requires a special kind of skill–only the skill of an expert at her craft–to create the irony, the sense of mischief, in dispatching an evil adversary.”

Marks paused to give Ruby Diamond a chance to rest. Bond opened her laptop to inspect her database. Ruby Diamond was ranked 37th. She would have gotten to Ruby next week at the latest. That realization did not make her feel better.

Marks took a moment to scribble a brief note on a pink post-it, and handed it to Bond. She glanced at it, folded it in her hand. Ruby Diamond smiled at Marks. “You know, if I’d known you were going to be such a lovely man, I’d have brought you some macaroons.”

“But you wouldn’t lace mine with poison, I hope,” he said, feigning horror.

She smiled crookedly. Another pat of his hand, this time lingering. “Of course not, Charlie. Au contraire, mon ami.” Her eyes waited expectantly for some reaction.

“You didn’t think Miss Lillian was a nice person, did you?” he asked.

“You mean the Marquesa?” her face soured. “The Marquesa was guilty of murder. She got her just desserts.”

“Who did she murder, Ruby?”

“She murdered a woman I used to know.”

“Who is that, Ruby?”

“Her name was Gladys Huff.”

“You’re not Gladys Huff?”

“I am Ruby Diamond. Gladys Huff was one of my fans.”

Bond took the note back to her desk and made the call as instructed. Twenty minutes later, she watched as Marks walked Gladys Huff to the rear door of a waiting ambulance as though he was escorting her down the Red Carpet.

***

Teresa Bond sat on the back deck of the modest suburban home, nursing her one glass of wine. “How did you figure that out so fast?”

Marks would not have shown up a rookie partner like this in the past. But she was no ordinary rookie partner, and he had limited time left to create mischief and leave her lasting memories.

“The gal at the library explained ‘keywords’ to me,” he said. “We started with macaroon, garden, and cyanide. Brought me right to her blog. That Google is something.”

Her forehead wrinkled. Why hadn’t she gotten there first?

“Twenty minutes on her blog proved you one hundred percent correct.”

“Proved me correct?”

“Yes, when you described the self-publishing erotica writer. You couldn’t have described Gladys Huff better if you’d have given me her picture. Then I saw the rose bushes.”

“The rose bushes,” she repeated.

“Yes, the perfect rose bushes in front of the shabby house. While you were doing your research.”

Bond stared back blankly.

“Kitchen or garden shears, remember?”

Of course she remembered.

“She handed over the pruning shears before we left the house,” Marks said.

“You’re twisting the knife now.”

The veteran sipped his iced tea. “Remember, it’s not the information that solves crimes, it’s what you do with it.”

Bond rose from her chair, sauntered over behind Marks, rubbed his shoulders, bent down and kissed him on the cheek.

“You’re such a smart dad. I have so much to learn from you.”

“Not until you explain bodice ripper.”

_________________________________

If you enjoyed this story, why not tootle on over to Amazon and pick up this really neat volume of more shorts, Tight Spots? The first person to leave a review on that lonely boy will receive a coupon code for a free audiobook version of Diary of a Small Fish.



8 Responses to “Just Desserts”

  1. Wow! One might part with money for that story!
    Seriously, liked you story a lot. Very Poirot- but better than Agatha Christie.
    Perhaps a line or two to make more of the reason for cutting off the digits would round the crime, .

    • 2 Pete

      Thanks, Richard. I did try to evoke the Agatha Christie oddball voice in ol’ Gladys.

  2. I’m gonna delete all those one stars I wrote now…

  3. 4 Dr Anne

    I’ve suddenly gone off macaroons. Great story, Peter, and I really like the one star reviews Lillian wrote, the characterisation, plus the ‘twist in the tail’ ending. I suspected cyanide early on. I also wondered about the reason/motive for the amputation of the digits, and think it was done to punish Lillian for typing the reviews.

    (FYI – I found one typo, you used the word ‘thought’ in the sentence beginning “A Sadist…” where you meant to use ‘though.’ It’s in the dialogue with Ruby speaking. Easy thing to do).

    Cheers,

    Dr Anne.

    • 5 Pete

      Lovely to hear from you after all these months, Anne! Glad you enjoyed, and thanks for the typo.

  4. Nice one. Loved: “Since it happened in the 17th century, I am aware of it.” But EVERYONE has heard of 50 Shades, including complete Luddites.


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