Every once in a while I go through my old story starts on my computer or in my files to see how my ideas have aged. Sometimes like a fine wine I like what I read and may even get inspired to bring the piece back to life. Sometimes I haven’t a clue why I thought the piece was worth storage space.
This time I ran across the start of one of my Evelyn A. Archer mini-mysteries. I’ve had three of those stories published in magazines and recently compiled those three with some others and self-published them under the title Weeping Widows. If I knew where this story was headed, I think it would have made a good addition to the collection. What do you think? Have any suggestions for where the story should go from here?
John Brown’s body wasn’t moldering in the grave; it was sitting on the other side of my desk at Undercover Operations. John Brown himself was moldering a bit—his face as wrinkled as the skin on a cold cup of cocoa—but definitely not in the grave.
He feared he was headed in that direction, however, unless someone stopped his wife and her lover from murdering him for his money.
“You have a large life insurance policy?” I asked.
“No, ‘fraid not. I cashed that out during the great depression of ’82. You know, the one the government ain’t calling a depression .” He winked and smiled.
“So your wife is the beneficiary in your will. Why not change that and make sure she knows it? Tell her she can have a divorce free and clear.”
He shook his head. “No will to speak of. Nothing worth paying a lawyer to write down anyway. All’s I got. . .” He lowered his voice and leaned forward in his chair, “is this gold mine outside Nipton, CA, north of the Mojave, you know where I mean. It’s about to pay out any year now and she aims to get the deed all to herself just before it does.”
I drove through Nipton once. Lots of cactus, a few worn-board buildings, a couple of big birds sitting on the Welcome fence–buzzards, I think, or vultures, I never could tell the difference.
If there were gold mines there as well, they must all be in the same state of potential payload as John Brown’s “Gold Nugget Grotto.”
I asked if the property had been recently purchased. No, it had been a wedding present 25 years previously. How long had his wife been involved with her lover? Brown was sure they’d been “goin’ at it regular” since shortly after their honeymoon.
“Well then,” I put my pen down and closed my casebook, ready to tell him to go home and stop worrying. “What makes you think your wife wants this property after all these years?”
“My first clue was the rat poison in my granola.”
I opened my casebook again to a blank page. “Shall we start over from the beginning?”
Every day, John Brown began his morning with a big bowl of home baked, whole grain, apple and walnut granola. “Warm milk on it in winter,” he told me, “cold in summer. With a handful of raisins. Nothing better to keep you regular all day.”
One week earlier, while stirring cold milk into the chunky granules, a suspicious few floated to the top.
“Maude been making the same durn recipe fifteen years now. First I thinks, what the hey she want to go changing the ‘gredients for–pardon my French, won’t you? Then I starts poking them floaters, wondering if she tried sneaking in some of those sesame things she knows I can’t stand. But no sesame ever had seeds looks like that.”
He knew what they did look like–he’d been setting out rat poison since he’d been “about as tall as the knees on a midget and not one finger taller.” But he wasn’t willing to believe his eyes until he found the box of poison he’d bought just two days earlier–on the spice shelf and half empty.
By picking through a two pound tin of granola still warm from the morning’s oven, he saw she’d laced it with enough rat poison to clean out all rodents within a two mile radius. “Just in case I survived the first bowl, I guess,” Brown surmised.
Twenty-five years of marriage had made him reluctant to jump to conclusions, however, so he kept “mum” for a few days, eyes on the alert for any other aberrant behavior. Every morning when she wasn’t looking he dumped his granola in the garbage. Next time she looked around he’d be rubbing his belly and telling her what a tasty batch that bowl had been.
“She tells me I’ll get indigestion if I keep eating so fast,” he said. “Like stomach cramps was the worst of my worries.”
Since he had no idea who the lover was, some old fashioned detective work was called for. So I called upon my assistant Harley Meeks to swap shifts with me tailing Mrs. Brown as she went about her daily duties.
Her husband had already warned us about her knitting circle. “What them women want to mess around with pointy needles for?” he’d wondered. “One of them stabs you in the right place, you don’t need to waste no rat poison on ’em. They’s deader than a doornail.”
He also had doubts about her frequent trips to the library. “Sure she brings home books every day, but I never see her read even one of ’em.”
However, two weeks worth of surveillance had produced no proof of promiscuity, just a cable knit sweater with more knots in it than a prize fighter’s noggin and about a dozen late fees.
“She is hiding something,” Harley mused as we ended our day with a cold beer at our favorite bar. “The way she keeps glancing around while she wanders through the library makes it look like she’s going to shoplift books right into her huge handbag, but she never does.”
He grabbed a handful of peanuts and popped one into his mouth. “Once she saw me nearby and narrowed her eyes like she would bite me if I got within range.”
“She knits like a nutcase as well. Dropped stitches, twisted double back crosses, botched bobbles. She purls when she should knit and knits when she should purl. I hope you’re not allergic to wool, by the way. Your purple scarf is almost done. As is this case,” I added, then drained my glass and got up.
Harley followed suit without saying a word. Either he got my drift or his mind had drifted off elsewhere and he just didn’t care. Whichever it was, he agreed to show up at the library with John Brown the next day to help me complete the case.