by Carter Swart
Last week we were at Crescent Bay's Olmstead House, a spectacular, if creepy, northern California mansion. Containing over 8,000 square feet of Victorian overkill, it perches like a dark, brooding bird of prey on an isolated spit of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The gloomy, damp weather adds a certain Gothic touch.
My Aunt, Penelope French, world class detective and sometimes major frump, had been urgently summoned by her widowed second cousin, Margaret Amberson, immediately upon the unexpected death of Margaret's brother, Lazar Olmstead. Olmstead, a retired multi-millionaire, for many years had shared a serene and quiet life with Margaret. His health had always been excellent; thus his sudden demise was a great shock. And because my aunt is internationally famous, it was only natural that Margaret would waste no time in getting us up there. As a matter of fact, we arrived within 24 hours of her phone call.
My memory of that first night is compelling; it was just after supper, and we were having dinner. During the first course, my aunt asked how Lazar had died.
"Penny," Margaret answered, "he--he came downstairs stumbling and moaning. I thought for a moment he'd gotten into the brandy again. But no, he was terribly ill. I've never seen anyone that sick. He started to walk toward the kitchen, then changed his mind and staggered into the arboretum. He waved for me to follow."
"What time was this?"
"Around midnight. I was just going to bed, and--" Margaret sighed and wavered, finally slumping into a nearby chair. ďDonít know how Iíll get on without that dear man.Ē
"I know dear. Now, did he say anything?" pressed Penny.
"He tried to, but--he was gagging so, that--" Margaret leaned forward and began to weep.
My aunt frowned and called me over. "Watson (my name is Watson Chalmers), go out to the kitchen and make us some tea, this instant."
I moved smartly. My aunt, though in her eighties, is the one who calls the shots at our San Francisco detective agency. She lets me handle the rent-a-cops, but she runs the investigative end--the money end. They call her the Bay Area Miss Marple. I think she keeps me around for comic relief, or perhaps out of deference to my deceased mother whom Penny dearly loved. Whatever, her checks donít bounce.
Anyway, by the time I brought in the tea, Margaret had recovered her aplomb and was in earnest discussion with my aunt. I put down the tray and listened. Margaret talked while Penny scribbled notes in her dog-eared yellow notepad.
In five minutes of rambling, Margaret gave us the following dissertation on brother Lazar's last day on earth: He had done some morning desk work, had seen to his arboretum bee colony during the afternoon, had taken tea, a light meal, and several homemade honey cakes for desert at about six p.m., then had gone off to town to meet with his lawyer, Duncan Aldridge. He'd come back about nine p.m., complaining of a stomach disorder, retiring shortly thereafter.
According to Margaret, the purpose of Lazar's visit to Aldridge was to purge Lazar's nephew, Harold Becker, from the family trust. Harold was a mooching, lazy whelp, according to Margaret. In fact, the night before Lazar's death he and Harold had engaged in a shouting match over the younger man's alcoholism and indifferent work habits. Lazar had summarily ordered Harold from the house and from his employ. Harold had left yelling epithets and threats.
According to lawyer Aldridge, though, the changes to the will had not yet been recorded--now could never be. Thus, Lazar's death had conveniently rescued Harold's substantial claims to the estate. And unless it could be proved that Harold had something to do with Lazar's death, he would inherit a tidy sum--money he had no right to according to Margaret.
Penny consulted her notes and asked: "Maggie, did Harold have access to the arboretum? Could he have been in there alone at any time?"
"Certainly. He helped Lazar build it. They were both very proud of it. As you know, my brother raised world class rhododendrons."
Penny smiled. "Yes, I know. I'm quite interested in things botanical. May we see the arboretum?"
"Of course, follow me." Margaret got up, wiped her eyes, and they turned to leave the library.
I spoke up. "But ladies, your tea is getting cold."
We strolled through the mansion and out the french doors to the arboretum at the rear of the house. It was fantastic. Such places are often constructed as rather modest appendages to homes, plastic and glass wrapped afterthoughts. But this one was immense, probably 60 x 100 feet, all glass enclosed with a domed fifteen foot ceiling. It was packed wall-to-wall with rows of pink, red, and purple rhododendrons, and glorious snow-white azaleas. Rows of heat lamps kept the temperature decidedly tropical. The pleasant hum of bees added much to the bucolic nature of the scene.
"You said Lazar finally staggered in here?" asked Penny.
Margaret shuddered. "Yes. He was deathly ill, just crawling really. He was trying so hard to tell me something."
"How do you know that?"
"He struggled to one knee and sort of pointed down there." Margaret waved toward a narrow, dark corridor between two rows of colorful plants.
"Down here?" asked Penny, peering into the gloom.
"Are you sure?"
"What happened next?"
"Well, he had this terrible seizure and fell sideways into the rhodies. I called 911 immediately."
"I see." My aunt turned and wandered off down the corridor in question, disappearing at the far end.
"When will the autopsy be finished?" I asked Margaret.
"It was supposed to have been done this morning. I expect a call this evening. And Watson, I just know Harold is behind this. He's quite clever, really. In fact--"
"Watson, come here," called Penny from the other end of the room. I'm familiar with that tone; it's her tone of discovery.
I walked down the dim corridor between the plants and found my aunt staring at several white wooden boxes. Beehives. About us there was the cheerful hum of activity one usually associates with beehives. A nearby table contained a metal scoop, covered with the clear, amber remnants of a honeycomb.
"See, Watson," said my aunt, waving her hand in a wide arc. "See what we have here?"
"My God! Watson, look around you. What do you see?"
I looked around. "Uh--flowers."
"Not just flowers, boy, Rhododendrons. How can you be so obtuse? (Bad dog) Come with me. Quickly now." I had a choice?
Penny rushed back along the path to where Margaret was standing. "Maggie. How long have these bees been isolated in here?"
"Oh, five or six months, ever since we opened the arboretum. It was Lazar's idea. He was for perfect purity in the pollinating process. Didnít want any outside plant strains. The weather has been so frightfully cold all summer."
"You're sure this wasn't Harold's idea?"
"No, it was Lazar's. Strictly."
"I see. Well, now think. When did Lazar collect the first batch of honey?"
"Uh--yesterday. At dinner he asked if I'd like some with my ham. But I don't like honey, so I didn't have any."
"Hmm. Most fortunate for you, my dear," murmured my aunt.
"Later. Lets go to the kitchen, shall we?"
We trooped through the house to the kitchen. It was large and immaculate. Penny, strutting around like the head rooster, snooped in the huge pantry and soon came up with a Mason jar of glistening honey, much of it still in the comb. It had an odd, but not unpleasant smell.
The phone rang and Margaret picked up the kitchen extension. "Yes? Oh, Dr. Tutweiler. The autopsy? Yes, but wait--I think you should speak to my cousin, Mrs. French. Yes, the Mrs. French." Margaret handed Penny the receiver.
"This is Penelope French. Why, thank you, doctor. Now, down to business, if you please. I take it the autopsy is finished. Good. Poisoned? Yes, I know. What was the agent? No, wait--let me tell you. Carbohydrate andromedotoxin. Right? Uh-huh. Just lucky, I guess. Certainly--and thanks."
Iíve seen cats licking cream with a similar smirking look as my aunt displayed when she hung up the phone.
"Well?" cried Margaret.
"Sorry, Maggie. Lazar was trying to tell you something in the arboretum. He was trying to tell you that he'd poisoned himself."
"No, not suicide."
"Maggie, rhododendrons are extremely toxic plants. Extremely. The early Greeks knew it all too well. Their children died sometimes from sucking the nectar."
"Penny, that's just silly. Lazar would never have sucked the nectar from any of those plants."
"I'm afraid he didn't have to. You see, he ate the honey. It's absolutely lethal. Those bees have been feeding exclusively on poisonous flowers for six months. It's not toxic to them, but it's death to anyone else who should sample their honey. And when Lazar finally figured it out, he tried to warn you. But he just ran out of time."
On the way home, Penny was simply insufferable, as usual. Gad, she can be worse than Jeremy Brett, that snooty little TV Sherlock Holmes. No, sheís even more arrogant.
But I just had to ask. "Penny, how did you know? About the honey, I mean?"
She grinned and patted my arm. "Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary."
Did you like this short story?
"Death in the Arboretum" ©1995 Carter Swart. Reprinted
by permission of the author.
Raven Electrick ©2000 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.