by Susan Pierce
Auntie Ag took a sip of tea to wash down her last bite of Sissy’s marvelous Auntie’s Afternoon Brownie. She’d grown quite fond of them. So tasty, and ever-so-relaxing, she often thought.
Sissy and Lewis liked to go out for a few hours on Saturday afternoons and, during those absences, Marph Dickey was kind enough to visit Auntie Ag. At two-thirty Marph had served the tea and a small brownie as usual. As usual, Auntie Ag made a point of offering a brownie to Marph and, as usual, Marph declined because, like every other American woman on the planet, she was on a diet.
“Okay,” Marph began with some hesitation, “so you’re good at murder, right Auntie Ag?”
Agatha Bliss choked on her tea. F0rtunately, the two were sitting at the kitchen table. Marph jumped to the sink, grabbed a sponge, and shot back to the table. She had the table clean again in a New York heartbeat. Meanwhile, Auntie Ag hurriedly mopped her face and the front of her blouse.
Marph was close to tears. “Oh, gees, Auntie! I’m so sorry. I knew that tea was too hot.
I should’ve let it stand for a sec. Are you burned?”
Auntie Ag shook her head and held up her right hand. “No, no darling. I am quite all right.”
“Oh, gees. Turn your face toward the light and raise your chin up.”
As she made the request, Marph turned Auntie Ag’s head, raised her chin, and began searching her mouth, lips, and chin. Auntie’s eyes seemed a bit dilated but Marph charged that up to the shock of choking. There was no redness or blistering in or near the mouth.
Auntie Ag pulled away. “No, no. I have not been scalded by the tea. Really. I am not at all burned. The tea was not too hot and I am not burned. I am really quite alright.”
Marph blinked. “My gawd, Auntie. You scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
Over the years, Auntie Ag had perfected the skill of diversion-by-pseudo -disaster. At this stage of life it was nearly impossible to see through the ruse and know that the choking scene was a complete fake.
Auntie thought, It was rude of me to make such a mess. But really, when a young person just blurts out a question like that, I do think I’m within my rights to take sufficient time to think of what to say. I am old and not as quick on my feet as I once was. Yes. I am entitled to take time when I need it.
“Very clumsy of me,” she said. “Very clumsy, indeed. I’ve always been just a bit left-footed.” She had no idea what left-footed meant, but in the moment it seemed like the right thing to say.
“I thought I’d probably scarred you for life. Gees.”
The two took a moment to catch their breaths and re-adjust themselves at the table.
“Okay. So where was I? Oh, yeah. Auntie, you’re good at murder, aren’t you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Marph leaned toward her and whispered in a rush, “You sure you’re all right?”
“Yes. I am quite all right, thank-you.”
“Well, yeah. Okay. ‘Cause I mean, everyone says you’re great at murder.”
“I’ll have you know, my dear, that I have never murdered anyone.”
Marph drew back, startled. Then she laughed, “No, no—no one says you’re a killer. That’s not what I meant. What I’m saying is that you’re good at figuring murders out. You know, if someone’s been murdered.”
Auntie Ag remembered The Rule laid down by Sissy and Lewis: No talk about murder in front of Marph. But Auntie felt trapped and saw no way of escape.
Head on, she thought. I’m not going to lie to Marph. But I’m not going to break The Rule. The only course of action possible is to take the thing head on.
She smiled like the cat who ate the canary and hoped Marph found no feathers while inspecting her mouth. “And who, pray tell, says that I am good at figuring murders out?”
“Everyone says so.” Marph was wide-eyed and earnest. “Mom, Dad, Ray, Scottie . . . ”
Auntie feigned shock by raising her eyebrows. “Scottie?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, Dad came home and told us all about the guy who was stabbed out at the Abby. Another time, Dad and Ray told us all about that girl under the bridge. Ray was the EMT who came with the ambulance that day. You impressed the crap out of him.”
Agatha Bliss couldn’t help but wince a bit at the mental picture that last statement painted. She thought, It’s strange that Californians use such visual language in the afternoon. She’d noticed that over the past several weeks and assumed it must be a cultural trait perhaps influenced by the Mexican tradition of the Siesta. It never occurred to her that the afternoon brownie might be somehow involved.
“Well, yeah. So Scottie figured you’re like an old lady Sherlock Holmes or something. No offense. But that’s what Scottie figured.”
Auntie Ag tried to keep her face expressionless as she pictured herself clad in a deer stalker hat and a cape, sucking on a pipe and following footprints through the heather. “I see,” she said.
“So I thought you’d be the person to ask. But I have to ask you quick so we can talk before Sissy and Lewis get back. How come they’re so sensitive about murder? Gees. Lewis is fine about death over at the hospital and all. But any time you bring up a news story about somebody killing somebody or something, it’s like he just vanishes. I mean, you look around and poof. Lewis is gone. Usually when I have a question about a patient I just ask Lewis. But I can’t this time. You know, with him being so sensitive about murder and all.”
“Ahh,” Auntie nodded in the most non-committal way possible and closed her eyes.
Agatha Bliss was hooked. Clearly Marph believed there had been a suspicious death at the hospital. Auntie reconsidered The Rule and poof. It was gone.
She leaned forward and patted Marph Dickey’s hand. In the most grandmotherly tone possible she said, “Now, my dear. Tell me what this is all about.”
“Well, yeah. Okay. So we had this patient. Mr. Mackey. He spent a couple days with us. I really can’t go into what was wrong with him because of HIPPA.”
“What is hippo?”
“HIPPA. It’s a law that says you’re not allowed to say anything about patients.”
“I see.” Auntie Ag was quite sure Marph didn’t have a complete grasp of the Privacy Act. She was also quite sure Marph could discuss her concern without violating HIPPA.
“How old was Mr. Mackey?”
“In his mid-nineties. He was in pretty good shape for his age. Impacted bowel, dehydrated, vitamin D deficiency . . . stuff like that. So he spent a couple of days in the hospital and we gave him, you know, like a tune-up.”
“You checked his oil, the air pressure in tires, cleaned his filters . . . ”
“Well yeah. Exactly. I knew you’d totally get it.”
“How long was he in the . . . the garage?”
“About three days. We cut him loose on Thursday afternoon and then first thing in the morning yesterday everyone was all about how he was dead. Mr. Mackey was dead.”
“Oh, dear.” Auntie Ag leaned forward and patted Marph’s hand. “Do we know what the cause of death was?”
“Well yeah. Okay. They said he got all tangled up in the chord to the headphones on his personal TV and strangled himself during the night.”
“Well yeah, but the thing is, is that Mr. Mackey didn’t like watching TV.”
“Totally. He didn’t like the hospital. He didn’t like the food, which who can blame him? Plus he said it was too noisy. He said, ‘Those high pitched beeps and buzzers going off all night. All those inmates watching their little idiot boxes at all hours.’ That’s what he calls TVs. Idiot boxes.”
I would have liked Mr. Mackey, Agatha Bliss thought.
“Yeah. And he said he couldn’t wait to get home and get some peace and quiet is what he said. He liked to read and sometimes he listened to Public Radio. I always wondered who listened to Public Radio but it turns out it’s old people like Mr. Mackey. Which is fine. Whatever. I mean, I’ve never seen you listen to Public Radio. But of course you’re not as old as Mr. Mackey and you’re pretty cool. But when you do get that old, I bet you still don’t listen to it.”
“What do you think happened to Mr. Mackey, my dear?”
“I can tell you what I don’t think. What I don’t think is, is that Mr. Mackey strangled himself during the night with the chord of his headphones. I think someone else did it.”
Agatha Bliss sat back in her chair, closed her eyes, and said, “Oh, dear. Marph . . .” She opened her eyes. “You must tell me everything.”
“Who found Mr. Mackey?” Auntie asked.
The relaxing effect of her small afternoon brownie was beginning to wear off and she was becoming increasingly alert.
“His daughter found him. She’s such a bitch.”
“Now Marph, we mustn’t say rude things about people.”
“I’m sorry, but she is a bitch. She’s divorced. She drinks. She’s selfish and she doesn’t take good care of her dad and I bet she’s sucking every nickel he has right out of him.”
Marph walked over to the sink, got a drink of water, and brought it back to the table.
Auntie Ag smiled. “Yes, do take a moment to catch your breath. This business has been very painful for you—very painful indeed.”
Marph cooled off a bit. “Well, yeah. But you know what? Okay. His daughter didn’t even drive him over to the hospital. She called an ambulance and she stayed home. Home, but it’s not her house. Her mom died of a heart attack twenty years ago and left her some money, but she blew through it. So her dad said yeah, okay, you can move in with me. Her being divorced and broke and can’t keep a job and all.”
Auntie Ag nodded.
“So she moved in. Just like that camel that sticks his head in the tent and the next thing you know the camel is totally inside the tent and the man is outside in the middle of a sand storm. Before long, Mr. Mackey has his bedroom with a chair, a hospital bed, and one of those hospital trays on wheels. She gets him a little TV with plug-in headphones and sets it up on the tray and that’s it. He’s stuck in his room and she has the run of the whole house.”
Auntie Ag asked, “Did she visit him in the hospital?”
“Not even once. I called her to pick him up, packed up his junk, wheeled him downstairs, helped him through Discharge, wheeled him out to the curb, and stood there with him for another twenty minutes waiting for her to show up. They only live five minutes from the hospital. Five minutes.”
Auntie Ag tsked.
“Finally she pulled up to the curb but she never even got out of the car. She kept the motor running while I got him into the car. I put his meds and personal junk in the back seat, and she drove off.”
“Well Marph,” Auntie Ag said with lightening flashing through her blue eyes, “I stand corrected. She is a bitch, isn’t she?”
Auntie glanced at the kitchen clock and saw that it was three-thirty. As they talked, Marph took an apple from the refrigerator, cut it into thin wedges and placed them on a small plate.
Auntie smiled as Marph set the plate between them on the table. “How nice. I wonder if you would be so kind as to add one or two slices of Swiss cheese and a few biscuits?”
Marph did so and arranged the snack, along with a couple of napkins, on the table between them.
Lovely, Auntie Ag thought. The apple, sweet and juicy . . . the savory cheese . . . the biscuits,or, as Americans call them, crackers, for a bit of crunch . . .
“Lovely,” she said aloud. “Since I’ve been here I often feel just a bit peckish this time of day.”
Marph chomped on an apple slice.
“You said the daughter was taking financial advantage of Mr. Mackey?”
“Was he wealthy?”
“Totally. Both him and his wife. They both came from families with tons of money. I was standing right there when he checked out of the hospital. He doesn’t – um, he didn’t – have any insurance. He just wrote out a check for a couple thousand dollars and that was it. They didn’t have any other relatives so when his wife died, all her money went to the daughter. When Mr. Mackey dies, the daughter gets the rest of it. Bitch.”
“Now darling,” Auntie said after swallowing a bite of cheese and cracker. “We are in agreement that the daughter is indeed a bitch. There’s no need to continue repeating the fact. Do remember that vulgarity goes to credibility. The more vulgar language one uses, the less credibility one has with other people. Those who constantly use vulgarity are not taken seriously.”
Marph nodded. “Well yeah. And this is totally serious. I’ll be more careful about what I say.”
“Very good, dear.”
“The thing is, is that the bit . . . daughter doesn’t take care of him. Megan from the hospital drives by Mr. Mackey’s house every day when she comes to work. She says the daughter’s car is gone for days at a time. When he checked into the hospital Megan was thinking about calling her in to County Human Services for elder abuse.”
“When did the daughter divorce?”
“Well let’s see. She was married to this guy over in San Francisco, one of those high finance types with the slicked down hair. She moved in with her dad about six months ago. Betty thinks . . . do you know Betty? The hairdresser down at the Curl Up and Dye? She thinks the b . . . daughter must’ve gotten divorced around then.”
“If she did divorce. She’s often away. I wonder . . . ” Auntie Ag closed her eyes for a moment and thought.
Then she said, “You know, dear, a person in high finance these days could find himself suddenly in need of a great deal of money. This economy is so very dicey, isn’t it? And we don’t really know the daughter divorced, do we? If she’s still married, or at least still in love with the man in San Francisco, and if he suddenly needed money, and her father was both very wealthy and very old, and if she moved into her father’s house but was often gone . . . ”
“Oh my God, Auntie Ag. You think Mr. Mackey didn’t strangle himself. You think it was murder, too.”
“I think it was murder, indeed.”
Just then the two women heard the Subaru coming up the driveway.
Auntie said in a rushed whisper, “Now listen carefully, Marph. The Boys are home. They mustn’t hear us speaking about this. Go now. Go directly to your dad. Don’t speak to anyone until you’ve reported all this to him. Tell him everything we just spoke about. Do not use vulgar terms. He is a Deputy Sheriff and we want him to take this very seriously. Tell him that, if he calls in the police, they will likely find the daughter and her husband persons of interest in the matter.”
“Got it.” In a flash Marph was out the door, in her car, and on her way to her dad.
Lewis burst through the kitchen door. “Hey there, beautiful,” he sang. “What’s cookin’?”
He set three plastic grocery bags on the countertop and began stowing away supplies.
“Did you have fun with Marph?”
Auntie Ag smiled. “Oh, yes. We worked a puzzle this afternoon.”
“That’s nice,” Lewis said as his shut a cabinet door.