DEATH AT THE ABBEY
by Susan Pierce
“Cash, Auntie Ag,” Sissy said with slight annoyance, “they don’t take checks, Travelers’ Checks, or credit cards.” Sissy wrangled the store mannequin out of the front passenger seat of his Subaru, shoved it into the back seat, and carefully maneuvered his elderly aunt into the front seat where the mannequin had been.
“I told you that 900 times already. No British Pounds Sterling, no Euros. US Dollars. Cash only. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Man, he thought, the day she broke ninety-seven years old her whole brain turned into a sizzling wok of otter pucky.
Bringing his elderly Aunt Agatha Bliss to live with him and Lewis was a continuing adjustment for them all. He transplanted her from her quaint cottage in the English village of St. Mary Mod on Thrashing, now the pulsating microbrew-and-club capital of the Midlands, into the cottage he shared with his spouse, Lewis, in Auburn, California.
Okay, it wasn’t a “cottage” in the English sense. It was a stucco-plastered double-wide trailer wedged between olive trees and surrounded by flaming orange California poppies, white day lilies, and wild strawberries.
And Lewis wasn’t Sissy’s spouse in the English sense, either. They met in the Navy, fell in love, didn’t tell what no one asked, received honorable discharges, and then settled in northern California. Lewis became a nurse at the Cal Davis Med Center and Sissy became a reasonably successful organic caterer. They had no debt, few bills, and a combined income in the low six-figures.
Two seconds after they picked her up at the Sacramento airport, Lewis told Sissy that Auntie Ag was suffering from mild dementia. Still, she was Sissy’s aunt and he loved her and he was her only living relative. Everyone Agatha Bliss had known or loved had died.
So had the Bliss Trust. Millions in royalties, book sales, and speaking fees had disappeared overnight when the Bliss Family Trust went south after British Petroleum took history’s biggest leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Sissy was not a violent guy, but if he ever got his hands on the genius who invested 96% of the Trust in BP, he’d knock that guy’s teeth so far down his throat he’d have to shove his hands up his ass to bite his fingernails.
Alternating between perfect lucidity and lunacy, Ag settled into her new life in small-town California fairly well and quickly established new routines. For example, every morning after breakfast she strapped on her sturdy walking shoes and made her way to a particular olive tree. Reaching up to one of its ripening fruits, she mumbled something about God’s infinite power as revealed in the delicate form of the testicles of tree turtles and spent the next half hour or so stroking the ripening olive.
This behavior would have been viewed as a bit gaga in England, sure, but it wasn’t that unusual in California. Aunt Ag wasn’t even the craziest person Lewis and Sissy knew. There was James, for example, who came up to Auburn every Fourth of July so he could crank up Wagner on his ipod, strip himself naked, and jump up and down on the deck while he watched the City of Auburn fireworks display.
Sissy and Lewis were nothing if not compassionate. They adjusted.
Aunt Ag had arthritis and was increasingly hard of hearing. She tended to drool a bit and stuffed used Kleenexes in every chair and sofa. And about a month after her arrival, Lewis began to suspect that Auntie Ag was in constant pain. Sissy and Lewis, being nothing if not compassionate, decided Auntie Ag would experience a better quality of life if she smoked dope.
That’s why Sissy was wedging Ag into the passenger seat of the Subaru. He intended to drive her down to Sacramento, get her a medical prescription for marijuana, and pick up a month’s supply of “medicine.” Of course, he didn’t have to drive all the way to Sacramento to score a bag of weed. But somehow, it seemed like the right thing – the elegant thing – to do for a person like Agatha Bliss. The long drive was, for Sissy, a part of his gift to her of that better quality of life.
Aunt Ag was successfully loaded into the car. The mannequin was tossed into the back seat. Now all Sissy had to do was silently rapid-fire his mantra over the next several hours in order to blow himself into his internal happy place so she wouldn’t drive him completely crazy before they got back home.
The medical “exam” cost $135.00. He got three pre-rolled joints for $10; a couple of $5 brownies; and two eighths of buds to use for cooking because, if smoking proved to be difficult for Ag, he planned to grind up some buds and mix them into sauces, chicken-pot pies, and whatever. Sissy had $250.00 in his money clip and it was more than enough to cover her costs.
The drive back to Auburn was quiet. Sissy was in the habit of swearing at other drivers on Interstate 80, but with Aunt Ag in the car, he fought to curb his natural tendencies. They returned to the trailer in the early afternoon, Sissy micro waved some green tea and gave it, along with a cannabis brownie, to Auntie Ag, who was comfortably enthroned on her emerald green recliner. Soothed by the harmonic vocals of a Chanticleer CD, she took a restful afternoon nap in her recliner and then, at about 5:30, because old people like to eat early, the three of them set out to the Abbey for dinner.
The Abbey is a restaurant and winery just north of Auburn. It’s on the Wine Trail, a quiet two-lane road which winds through rolling hills and vineyards. The outdoor Wine Café is on the east side of the Abbey so that the old granite building shades tasters from the heat of the late afternoon sun. Tables along the east side of the dining room feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Wine Café and, beyond them, the rolling vineyards. As night falls, tiki torches are lit out on the charming Wine Café patio.
Lewis, Sissy, and Aunt Agatha arrived at the Abbey at a little after 5:30 and were seated inside in the dining room at Sissy and Lewis’s favorite table next to the windows. They gave Auntie Ag the chair facing the windows so she could enjoy the view of the outdoor Wine Café and the rolling hills beyond.
They dined in leisurely fashion, in an atmosphere of peaceful serenity. Aunt Ag seemed entranced with the view out the windows. She said almost nothing during the meal. With the exception of an occasional sip of wine and a bite of salad or pasta, she barely moved a muscle.
But the serene ambience in the dining room came to a screeching halt at 6:20 that evening. Just as the last of the dishes were being removed from their table and the coffee was being poured – just as the tiki torch nearest their window was being lit – Auntie Ag said softly, “Oh, dear.”
Then came the crash of a bus tray, the shatter of breaking glass, and a blood curdling scream.
Everyone in the large room froze. Sissy jumped to his feet and shot his eyes wildly around the dining room. Diners began to stir. They looked around them and asked each other what could have happened. Auntie Ag sat, still as a statue, and continued to stare out the window.
Slowly, Sissy and Lewis turned their own eyes toward the windows, as did every other pair of eyes in the room. All eyes focused on the scene outside. All eyes stared in horror at the lifeless form which lay on the cold, granite floor of the Wine Café, and at the spreading red pool puddling around the cork screw which stuck out of the neck of the Abbey’s wine steward.
Sissy slowly became aware that someone had spoken his name. He turned to look at Aunt Agatha as she said, “Sissy . . .” for a second time.
“Yes, Aunt Aggie?” he managed to say.
“You know, my dear,” she said softly, “I don’t approve of murder. I had so hoped she wouldn’t do it. But there you are. I suppose it couldn’t be helped. Still, one always does hope for the best, especially after a lovely dinner, don’t you think?”
Sissy sank onto his chair. Lewis stared. Lewis leaned toward Agatha and, propping both elbows on the table, said, “Auntie, what do you mean? Who did you hope wouldn’t do what?”
Agatha looked out the window again and then she busied herself by brushing away a few crumbs from the tablecloth. That done, she turned her sparkling blue eyes to Lewis and said, “Ilene.”
Sissy and Lewis said, almost in unison, “Ilene? Who’s Ilene?”
Aunt Aggie nodded in a meaningful manner to their table’s empty fourth chair. The one with its back to the windows. “Ilene said she would kill him, but I had hoped she wouldn’t.”
Lewis said, “Ilene?”
Sissy said, “Who is Ilene? Ilene killed the wine steward?”
“No, dear,” Agatha was becoming agitated. “Ilene didn’t do it. Ilene said that other woman would kill him.”
Sissy shook his head in frustration.
“Auntie, who’s Ilene?” Lewis repeated.
“Lewis, you’re not a very observant person, are you?” She nodded again to the empty chair facing her at their table. “Ilene is our fourth at dinner this evening.” Then, Agatha closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap.
Sissy and Lewis looked again at the fourth chair at the table. No one was there.
“It’s totally time to take her home,” Lewis whispered behind his napkin. “And before we get in the car, please stow that awful mannequin in the way-back. Please, Hon. I rode here with a plastic foot in my ribs the whole time.”
Sissy lifted his aunt’s cane off the back of the Ilene-less fourth chair and handed it to Lewis. He stood up as unobtrusively as possible, dropped some cash on the table, and eased his car keys from his pocket. He whispered to Lewis, “I’ll have the car at the front door by the time you two get there.” He cleared the Abbey’s heavy, wooden door as everyone began clamoring toward the windows for a better look at the dead man.
Lewis helped Aunt Aggie to stand and then, taking her elbow to steady her, moved toward the door. Just as they reached it, a manager-type person stepped in their path.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I don’t think you should leave. I’m sure the police will want to question everyone, and you were sitting right by the windows . . . ”
Lewis said, “Look. My – uh – aunt – is very . . . ” Realizing tact might be called for, he mouthed the word old. “She’s upset, and I need to get her home.”
The manager hesitated. Lewis shot a glance at Aunt Aggie. She didn’t look upset. In fact, she looked completely calm.
“Look,” Lewis said. “I’ll give you my name and address. If the police need to talk to me, they’ll know how to find me. Do you have something to write with?”
This seemed to satisfy the manager. The contact information was provided and recorded, and Lewis and Aunt Agatha proceeded to the car.
It was nearly nine o’clock when they heard a heavy car crunch up the gravel driveway and then the unmistakable sound of a heavy car door slamming. By the time three sharp raps were being administered to the front door, Sissy had already reached out to open it.
Standing in the doorway beneath a gray cowboy hat and above a crisp Sienna Sherriff’s Department uniform was a round, sunburned face topped by close-cut blond hair.
“I’m Dickey,” the lawman, trying to secure his radio mic to the epaulet on his shoulder, told Sissy.
“I can see that,” Sissy replied.
“Placer County Deputy Sheriff Hiram Dickey.”
Sissy opened the door wider and stepped back. “Won’t you come in?”
Lewis nodded. “You’re here about the murder.”
A look of alarm flashed onto Deputy Dickey’s face and his right hand moved toward his holstered gun. “What murder?”
Lewis said, “How many murders have there been tonight? The murder over at the Abbey, of course. We had to leave before you fellows arrived because we needed to bring our aunt home. Since we were there, I left my contact information with the manager, and I kind of expected someone would be along to question us, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly . . . ”
“I’m not here about the Abbey murder. Other guys are handling that. I’m here because you people drive a 2008 Subaru Legacy, sea foam green in color. Correct?”
Sissy said, “That’s right.”
“We had a call from a guy who said he saw your car leaving the Abbey parking lot in a hurry this evening. Said there was a naked lady in it with a look of sheer terror on her face. She was trying to claw her way out of your back cargo-hatch door.”
Lewis threw his index finger at Auntie Ag. “You’d better come clean, Aggie! You been racing around naked in the car again? This guy’s the law, you know. You’d better confess—maybe they’ll go easier on you in Alcatraz if you do!”
Auntie Ag tossed back her white head in laughter. It was one of those delightful moments of Auntie Agatha at her very best. “Oh, Lewis! Alcatraz has been closed for years. And I was with you two gentlemen all evening.”
Lewis turned to Sissy. “Honey, will you pleeeze get that mannequin out of the car?”
Deputy Dickey raised his eyebrows. “Mannequin?”
Sissy nodded. “You see, Deputy, I got a mannequin for the car a couple of years ago. Say, why don’t we all sit down.”
Deputy Dickey settled into an overstuffed living room chair, introductions were made, and Agatha said, “Sissy, won’t you bring Deputy Dickey some tea and one of those lovely brownies?”
For the second time that day, Sissy felt panic. Sure, Ag had a prescription, but a fear of being “busted” had grown in Sissy over the years and didn’t just disappear in an afternoon.
Lewis saw it, Sissy’s twinge of panic at the thought of being thrown in the brig by Deputy Dickey for elder abuse and conspiracy to conceal a prescribed cannabis brownie, and worked to surpress a burst of laughter.
“No, thanks,” Deputy Dickey said. “I’m trying to cut back on white flour, chocolate, and sugar. They’re not good for you. Mind if I take a pinch of chew, though?”
Lewis said, “Not at all. Let me just get you a paper cup.”
A cup was produced and everyone relaxed. “Mannequin, huh?” Dickey said. “Trying to qualify for the high occupancy vehicle lane on the freeway? How’s that working out for you?
Sissy said, “Well, sir, including tonight, it’s brought me two tickets, a visit from a Deputy Sheriff, and a possible felony kidnap charge.”
“Uh-huh,” Dickey said with the straightest poker face ever.
“I’ve paid the tickets and I plan to take the mannequin apart before your tail lights clear our driveway tonight. I plan to take the pieces over to the landfill first thing in the morning.”
“Sounds like a good plan.” Deputy Dickey grinned. “Anything else I can clear up for you folks tonight?”
Agatha Bliss sat up straight in her chair and fastened her clear, sparkling blue eyes on the deputy. “There is one thing, Constable,” she said, “I do hope you’ll be gentle with her. She’s pregnant, you know.”
Lewis blurted, “The mannequin’s pregnant?”
“Lewis,” Aunt Aggie scolded, “This is no time to be flippant with the constable–as busy as he is and as late as he’ll be working tonight.”
“No, ma’am.” Lewis was willing to concede that he’d said something stupid. He just didn’t know what.
“Our Lewis isn’t very observant, is he? No, I was speaking of the bartender at the Abbey. I do think that’s why she did it.”
Sissy rolled his eyes and shot a questioning look to Lewis. Lewis shrugged.
Auntie Ag continued, “You see, Constable, she is pregnant. And she probably doesn’t have health insurance. No doubt she’s been working extra hours to put a little money aside for her near-future expenses. Poor girl must have been exhausted.”
Auntie’s voice softened to a whisper. “And he was such a selfish, nasty little man.” She shook her head. “Evil, really.”
“Who’s a nasty little man, Auntie? You mean the baby’s father?” Sissy wondered.
“Oh, no, dear. I’m sure the baby’s father is long gone. No, I was speaking of the man with the cork screw in his neck – the wine steward.”
Deputy Dickey straightened. “The wine steward? The man who was murdered over at the Abbey?”
Auntie Aggie nodded. “I’m quite sure he’s been stealing from the Abbey. Probably for years. But it really was inexcusable for him to steal her tips. She worked so hard and always with a smile. She went out of her way to do those little extra kindnesses that people do so appreciate. I saw them both quite clearly, you know. Everything in the dining room is reflected perfectly in those enormous windows in the early evening, before the torches are lit.”
The three men stared at her in stunned silence.
Auntie Ag sighed and said, “Of course, one doesn’t approve of murder. Still, the poor little thing was exhausted and worried and probably scared to death, and that was why she snapped. I do hope you’ll be as gentle with her as possible, Constable.”
She sighed a second time, brushed an invisible crumb from her lap, and then said, “Constable Dickey, are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice cup of green tea and a brownie?”