Murder by Syllabub
A ghost in Colonial dress has been wreaking havoc at an old plantation house in Virginia. The house is owned by Elizabeth Smithwood, the best friend of Ellen McKenzie's Aunt Mary. Mary is determined to fly to the rescue, and Ellen has no choice but to leave her real estate business and new husband to accompany her. Who else will keep the old girl out of trouble?
When Ellen and Aunt Mary arrive, they find that Elizabeth's "house" comprises three sprawling buildings containing all manner of secret entrances and passages, not to mention slave cabins. But who owns what and who owned whom? After Monty--the so-called ghost and stepson of Elizabeth's dead husband--turns up dead in Elizabeth's house, suspicion falls on her. Especially when the cause of death is a poisoned glass of syllabub taken from a batch of the sweet, creamy after-dinner drink sitting in Elizabeth's refrigerator.
Monty had enemies to spare. Why was he roaming the old house? What was he searching for? To find the truth, Ellen and her Aunt Mary will have to do much more than rummage through stacks of old crates; they will have to expose two hundred years of grudges and vendettas. The spirits they disturb are far deadlier than the one who brought them to Virginia.
Murder by Syllabub is the fifth book of the Ellen McKenzie Mystery series.
“I’d recommend this book to lovers of the good old-fashioned m mystery, as well as lovers of suspense.
“Everything is described with a ricihness of language that draws the reader back into the early history of the south."
I was running late. Wednesday mornings were our real estate office meetings and attendance was required. On time attendance was strongly recommended. So, of course, it was this morning my alarm decided not to function. I stood at the sink, swallowing coffee and stuffing papers into my briefcase. My devoted husband, Dan Dunham, chief of police of our little town, sat at the kitchen table calmly spooning corn flakes into his mouth and telling me not to panic. I had plenty of time.
“Five whole minutes.” I snapped my briefcase shut, put my cup in the sink and, car keys in hand, started for the back door.
It opened before I got close and Aunt Mary burst in. “You’ll never believe what happened.”
I was too surprised to answer. Besides, her hair stuck out in little tufts as if she’d just climbed out of bed. Maybe she had. I was sure those were pajama bottoms that hung below the cuffs of her sweat pants and was positive the collar that curled crookedly over the top of her lipstick red sweatshirt was her pj top. Her feet were encased in lambs wool lined moccasins and she wasn’t wearing socks. My aunt Mary came up with some pretty bizarre outfits sometimes, but she’d never appeared with uncombed hair and in her nightclothes before. At least, I didn’t think she had.
Dan dropped his newspaper and stared as well. He managed to recover quicker than I did. Probably his police training. “What’s happened? Is anyone hurt?”
“Not yet.” She walked over to the hutch, took down a coffee mug and proceeded to fill it, leaving Dan and me to stare at each other. “You’ll need to make another pot, Ellen.”
She carried her mug over to the table, pulled out a chair and sank in it. “I’m going to Virginia.”
Briefcase and office meeting forgotten, I carried my cup over to the table and took my regular seat, opposite Dan. “Say what?”
“My friend, Elizabeth Smithwood, is in some kind of trouble and I’m going to Virginia to help her.”
Dan blinked then almost smiled. “In your pajamas?”
“Of course not. Whatever gave you—oh.” She glanced at the cuff of her pajama top that had slipped out from under her sweatshirt arm but ignored it. “Elizabeth is going to send me an airplane ticket and wants my e-mail address. I don’t have one, but you do, don’t you?”
Of course she didn’t have an e-mail address. She didn’t have a computer. “Yes. We both do. But before I give it to you, will you please tell me what’s going on?
She poured cream into her coffee then ladled in sugar, taking her time as she stirred. It looked as if she was trying to figure out how to frame what she was about to tell us. “You remember my friend, Elizabeth, don’t you? My old college roommate?”
Dan shook his head.
I did. I’d never actually met Elizabeth but had grown up on stories about her. Elizabeth, the activist. She’d gone on to get her PhD after she and Aunt Mary graduated. Aunt Mary came home to teach Home Economics in our local middle school and marry my uncle Samuel, a pillar of the community and president of Rotary Club. Elizabeth had gotten a job teaching history in a small college in Wisconsin and spent her summers saving old-growth redwoods, painting baby seals green so they couldn’t be slaughtered for their pelts and registering voters in the south during the civil rights movement. Aunt Mary and Uncle Samuel had bailed her out of jail for that one. She’d lived with William Smithwood, a mathematics professor at the same college, for years without benefit of holy matrimony. Until last Christmas. They’d been married only a couple of weeks when he died, leaving her an old plantation of some sort in Virginia. What kind of trouble could she have gotten herself into now? I was pretty sure I was about to find out.
“Elizabeth says strange things have been happening at Smithwood ever since William died and now she thinks she has a ghost. He appears in Colonial dress, and last night he tried to kill her.”
Dan’s coffee cup hit the saucer but my eyes were glued on Aunt Mary.
Did I hear what I thought I just heard. “Say again? A ghost? A colonial ghost? Where? What happened to make her think he tried to kill her?”
“He pushed a crate over and it just missed her.”
“A crate. What crate? How could a ghost push a crate?”
I gave Dan my most disdainful look. There was no ghost. I had no idea what Elizabeth saw, but it wasn’t a ghost. “Where was she when this happened?”
“I’m not sure. She wasn’t very clear. She sounded scared, though. She said she needs someone she can trust and who has a clear head. So, I’m going.”
I looked at the determined set of her chin and the steel in her eyes and knew there was no arguing. I turned toward Dan and raised my eyebrows.
He sighed. “Mary, I don’t know what’s going on out there, but it doesn’t sound good. As a matter of fact, it sounds bizarre. Exactly what does Elizabeth want you to do? Capture a prowler? That’s most likely who it is. Why doesn’t she call the police? They’re a whole lot better equipped to handle something like this than two ladies in their seventies.”
“I don’t know. I only know she’s scared and that’s not one bit like Elizabeth. I couldn’t go help her when William died, but I can go now, and I will. Now, can I have that e-mail address?”
Aunt Mary hadn’t gone to William’s funeral because she was helping put on Dan’s and my wedding. Guilt sat on my shoulders. I had no business listening to it. After all, it wasn’t my fault William decided to die right before my wedding day, but I knew that made her doubly determined to help Elizabeth now. What should I do? Go with her, of course.
“You’re not going out there alone.”
She gave me a scornful look. “I don’t need to be babysat, you know. I can take care of myself just fine.”
“You never go anywhere. Suddenly, you want to fly from California to Virginia all by yourself, changing planes I don’t know how many times, so you can help your friend chase a ghost, who’s probably a common burglar, out of her house? The whole thing is idiotic, but if you’re determined, well, I’ll go too.”
“You’ll do no such thing. You have a real estate business to run, a husband and a daughter to take care of and a cat to feed. You can’t come.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but Dan got there first. “Mary, Susannah is at the university studying for finals. At least, we hope she’s studying. I managed to eat just fine before Ellen and I got married and the cat doesn’t care who opens the cat food as long as it gets in his dish. As for the real estate, let’s ask Ellen.” He looked at me expectantly.
“I took care of Donna’s business last summer while they went to Hawaii. She owes me. Besides, we won’t be gone too long. I don’t know what your friend saw, but it shouldn’t take long to straighten it all out. You two can have a nice visit while I”--the look on her face said I’d better change pronouns and fast--“we work it all out. We’ll be back here before you know it.”
She gave a loud “humph,” but I thought there was a little relief in her eyes.
“I’ll e-mail Elizabeth right now and we’ll see what travel arrangements she had in mind.”
“Better call the airlines yourself.” Dan picked up his paper but put it right back down. “I’m not sure I like this. Maybe I’d better come along. It’s not a good time, though. I’m hosting the California Sheriffs’ conference next week, but maybe I can get Kent Walker from Sonoma county to sit in.”
“No,” Aunt Mary and I said together.
“I’m sure this will prove to be nothing and you’ve been planning this conference for months.” I smiled.
Aunt Mary didn’t look so sure. “Elizabeth doesn’t panic, but I can’t imagine a ghost prowling around her hallways, and I’ve never heard of one tipping over crates. Ellen’s right. It’s bound to be someone playing a silly prank. We’ll get it all cleared up in no time. ”
“Hmmm. All right, but if this turns out to be anything serious, I’ll be on the next plane.”
I got up, took the slip of paper she handed me with Elizabeth’s e-mail address and headed for the computer. “Let’s see what she has in mind.”
“She wants me to come Saturday.”
“Saturday?” I wheeled around to stare at her.
“Saturday!” Dan almost spat out the word. “What’s the damn rush?”
“She doesn’t want to be there alone if the ghost comes back.”
I thought Dan was going to come out of his chair. “This is the most ridiculous...Ellen, you tell her to call her local police right now.”
“I’m not sure I can get everything arranged by Saturday.” I might as well have been talking to a wall.
Aunt Mary got up and headed for the coffeepot. “Do you think it’s too soon to start packing?”