Murder and mint Tea is one of my favorites. After being turned down by many NY publishers for various reasons I turned to electronic publishing and never looked back.This book was an EPPIE finalist in the first year of the awards. There is also an audio version floating around. Here is the first chapter.
Murder and Mint Tea
By Janet Lane Walters
Preparing The Ground
The pale winter sun shone through the kitchen window. I cleaned up the last of the mess from my adventure. The caper hadn’t gone as planned. How many do? In my many years of life, most of my plans had taken an unexpected turn.
Merup.” Robespierre, my Maine Coon cat, announced a visitor on the way. He’s almost as good as a doorbell. The firm rap on the door told me this wasn’t one of my female friends. “Come in.”
Pete Duggan strode across the room and thrust a bouquet of bright carnations into my hands. A red hue, almost as vivid as his hair, stained his face. “Mrs. Miller, got to hand it to you. I’ve come to eat crow.”
To hide a smile I buried my face in the flowers and inhaled the spicy fragrance. “How about chocolate chip cookies and mint tea instead?”
“Sounds great.” He straddled one of the chairs at the table and picked up the local newspaper. “Local Woman Thwarts Robbers.” His grin made him look like the ten-year-old who had moved into the corner house on my block. He cleared his throat. “The guys at the station ribbed me about this. Did you forget the plan?”
How, when the idea to catch the real thieves had been mine? A series of burglaries had plagued the neighborhood for months and had troubled me. Especially when the police had decided two teenage neighbor boys were the culprits. I knew the pair and had disagreed strongly enough to set myself up as a victim. Then I informed Pete.
“Did you forget?” he repeated. “When I crept up the stairs and saw you grappling with one of the men, I nearly had a heart attack.”
Heat singed my cheeks. “How was I to know my date would poop out early?”
After filling two mugs with mint tea I opened a tin of freshly baked cookies. How could I admit to a nagging doubt, or tell him I had wanted to be part of the action? In July I had turned sixty-five and in September retired from the nursing staff at Tappan Zee Memorial Hospital. Six months of placid existence had made me edgy. Lunch with friends, coffee with the neighbors and weekly bridge games with old cronies bored me. These events held none of the challenge of meeting crises at the hospital.
Pete scowled. “You could have gone to the Prescott's house.”
“They’re away.” I sipped the tea and savored the cool mint flavor.
“The Randal’s’ then.” He pulled the other mug across the table. “The guys insist the two of us make one perfect cop. Want to hire on?”
“I’ve no desire for a third career.” Until my husband’s death twenty-five years ago I had been the organist and choir director at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Needing a way to support myself and my son, I enrolled in the nursing program at the community college. “Besides, I’m too old.”
“Old, never. You look the same as when we moved here.”
“It’s the dye.” His puzzled look tickled me. Dyeing my hair makes me look younger. “I came into the world with red hair and I intend to leave the same way.”
Laughter rumbled deep in his chest. “A worthy ambition you nearly fulfilled last night.” He touched my hand. “Thanks again. You kept me from making a mistake that could have ruined those boys.”
I lifted my mug and inhaled the aromatic steam. The evidence against the pair had been circumstantial and strong. They had done odd jobs at all the houses that had been burglarized. “I’ve known them since they were infants. Nothing I’ve ever seen in their actions to make me believe they were guilty.”
Pete made a face. “I’ve known them just as long. Didn’t stop me from suspecting them. How could you be sure?”
“Forty years of living in the same house has attuned me to the rhythms of the neighborhood.”
“Twenty years hasn’t helped me.”
“There’s living and living.” Some people are so concerned with the melody they never hear the underlying harmonics. As a musician I’ve learned to listen. As a nurse I know how to evaluate symptoms that are sometimes similar but are caused by different diseases. Those traits are a vital part of my nature.
I set the mug on the table. “Don’t blame yourself. You weren’t the only one to suspect the boys. No harm was done.”
He finished the cookie he held and rose. “No harm. Maybe some good. I’ll try looking beneath the surface.”
“That’s a great idea.”
He grinned. “I’m out of here. Work tonight.” He zipped his green down jacket. “How about acting as my silent partner?”
I laughed. “Go away with your nonsense.”
Just them the cat door opened. Robespierre made a grand entrance. Flakes of snow dotted his brown and black fur. His gait suggested a mission. He halted in front of Pete and banged the young policeman’s leg with his head.
Pete crouched and scratched the cat’s head. “Not my fault, old man. She jumped in on her own.”
Robespierre’s rumbling purr suggested he understood and accepted Pete’s explanation.
“He’s been out of sorts since the thieves visited.”
“Me, too.” Pete hugged me. “Never again. Promise. We need you around. Think about being a silent partner. There are times when I need someone to listen.”
“If listening is all you need, I’ll be here. No more active involvement in crime for me.”
“See you.” He clattered down the stairs.
Until I heard the front door close I remained at the top of the steps. Silent partner, no way. I rubbed the tender spot on my head where I’d been bashed. I had enough experience with crime to last the rest of my life.
* * *
During the night, Saturday’s few snowflakes became a blizzard and prevented an early morning walk. Though I could have returned to bed, habits formed during my years of being at the hospital before seven AM were hard to break. I sat on the window seat in the living room and stared through the glass at a white world.
When I converted the small Victorian house into two apartments, the second floor with its view had been my choice. In the autumn after the leaves fall, the Hudson River is visible. River watching has always relaxed me. This morning the heavy snowfall kept visibility to inches. No cars moved along the street and no people strolled on the sidewalks.
I poured a second mug of tea and scratched Robespierre’s head. Moments later he yawned and stretched, arching his back with a suppleness that brought a sigh of envy. He leaped from the window seat and stalked to the kitchen. The doorbell rang and I went to answer. The young boys from across the street stood at the top of the steps. They stomped snow from their boots.
“Boy, Mrs. Miller, there’s two feet of snow and it’s still falling.” Larry Randal grinned.
“But there’ll be school tomorrow,” Jamal said. “Bummer.”
“Thought you liked school.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay but I need a vacation.”
“You just had mid-winter break.”
I chuckled. Blonde hair stuck around the edge of Larry’s cap. His cheeks glowed apple red. The cold had burnished his foster brother’s coffee-colored skin. The boys jostled in the doorway each trying to be first inside.
“If there’s no paper, why are you here?”
Larry held up an orange plastic bag. “We brought the part that came yesterday.”
“We have to shovel your walk.” Jamal grinned. “And invite you to dinner this evening.”
“I’ll let your mother know.” A glance inside the bag showed the New York Times magazine was there. Part of my Sunday routine remained. “Want some cookies to take home?”
Identical grins spread across their faces. “You bet,” they chorused.
“If you come, could you bake a chocolate cake?” Jamal asked.
“Brownies,” Larry said.
“All right.” Two hands pumped in the air. “You always say that when you mean yes.”
I took a plastic bag of cookies from the freezer and filled a middle-size tin. “Share them with Becca and the twins.”
“Yes.” They dashed downstairs and banged the door on the way out.
After pulling the magazine from the bag and opening it to the puzzle, I snapped on the radio. Instead of classical music, a lengthy list of cancellations poured from the speaker. Looked like no one was going anywhere. I tackled the puzzle until the phone rang.
“Mom, guess I won’t pick you up for church.”
“Not unless you bought a snow mobile.”
“Even then I wouldn’t chance the trip.”
Andrew is thirty-nine, a psychiatrist and cautious. He’s never made a decision without weighing the possibilities at least three times.
“I’ll be fine. The boys have shoveled the walk and Sarah invited me to dinner.”
“Mom’s second family.”
Was there a trace of envy in his voice? Though he and Bob Randal had been friends since infancy they had drifted apart. Sadly their chosen lifestyles made the difference seem almost permanent and I had no solution.
“Andrew.” A note of chiding crept into my voice.
“Tell Bob hello.”
“You could do that yourself.”
“And risk Sarah snagging me to speak to one of the groups she champions. I’ve no desire to talk about the trauma of potty training to the development of a child’s personality.”
His dislike of Sarah puzzled me. Perhaps the cause was Sarah’s open and liberal nature. Andrew is exactly the opposite.
“Where were you yesterday afternoon?” His voice held a demanding tone.
“All afternoon and most of the evening. I stopped calling at ten. You need an answering machine.”
“I had dinner with Lars. He left for New Mexico last evening. Was it important?”
“Since your recent encounter with those criminals I worry. As you well know, you could develop problems from the blow to your head. How could Pete allow you to be involved?”
“He didn’t. Barging in was my choice.”
“I’d feel better if there were tenants in the apartment.”
“I’ll call the real estate agent Monday.” My patience with his over-protectiveness thinned. Lately he’s been acting as though I’m hovering inches from senility. “Let me talk to Andrea.”
While I assembled the ingredients for the chocolate cake my granddaughter chattered about her week. She had earned a role in the school play and had been chosen for a solo in the spring dance recital. Andrea had inherited my love of music. Instead of an instrument for expression she uses movement. After saying goodbye four times I hung up and called Sarah to accept the dinner invitation.
By four o’clock the heavy snowfall had stopped. I stood by the bedroom window and watched the wind blow snow from one drift and drop it on another. After pulling on a pair of russet wool slacks and an ivory blouse with a matching cardigan, I reached for my boots.
I tucked the slacks into the knee-high boots and put a pair of shoes in a bag. The boots are sturdy and warm but the thought of clomping around in them for hours held little appeal. In the kitchen I checked my jacket pocket for house keys, shook some food into Robespierre’s dish and picked up the cake container.
Downstairs I paused in the doorway to allow my vision to adjust to the blinding whiteness. The branches of a pair of dogwoods on the corner of the yard next to the driveway bowed beneath the weight of the snow. Rose bushes along the walk resembled small igloos. Since only a skim of snow covered the walk the boys must have recently shoveled the walk. Each of my exhalations sent a cloud of condensed vapor into the air.
The snowplows had left a cleared trail along my side of the street. Someone had cut an opening in the high bank of snow at the curb. In the distance I heard the scraping noise of the plow signaling a return.
While grasping the shoe bag in one hand and the cake container in the other, I strode across the cleared area. Moments later I plunged into virgin territory. The snow reached the top of my boots. With care I calculated the distance to the curb. I stepped up. On the downswing my foot hit something buried beneath the snow.
I lost my balance. The shoe bag flew toward the sidewalk. The cake container flew into the air. I hit the ground and learned how little cushioning snow provided. “Not my hip.” My cry echoed above the scraping snowplow sound. I’d seen too many older women deteriorate after a hip fracture and wanted no part of that fate.
My leg folded under me. A sharp pain resulted. The cake container opened. Chunks of chocolate cake showered on and around me. Snow seeped beneath my jacket collar and brought shivers.
“Help! Help!” My voice sounded faint. Did snow absorb sound? The scraping noise increased in volume. Visions of being scooped by the blade, loaded in a truck and dumped in the Hudson River evoked a scream. I pushed my elbows against the ground and tried to sit. The exquisite jolt of pain brought tears to my eyes. My screams rose to ear-shattering heights.
“Jamal, it’s Mrs. Miller.” Larry knelt beside me. “Get Mom and Dad.”
“Bummer.” Jamal made a face. “The cake is ruined.”
His expression and the realization that I’d been rescued brought a rush of tears. “So am I. Tell them my leg is broken.”
The arrival of Bob and Sarah brought a reaction a toddler must feel when parents rescued him from an unpleasant situation. They made a chair with their hands and carried me to the house.
“I’ll call the police,” Bob said. “They’ll know which roads are cleared and if I should drive you.”
“My hair. I can’t go to the hospital looking like a refuge from a food fight.”
“I’ll wash it,” Sarah said. “In the kitchen. We’ll pull the table to the sink.”
“I do not believe this.” Bob’s hair flopped onto his forehead. His body moved in concert.
The jerky movement sent knives of pain through my leg. I bit my lip. “Believe. It’s called vanity.”
“Shock,” he said. “Shouldn’t we make a splint?”
“The boot acts like one. No one not trained in trauma care was about to touch my leg.
Jamal, Becca, Larry and the two-year-old twins danced around raising the noise level to cacophony. Jamal’s cries of “Bummer. She gets all the cake,” lodged in my thoughts.
Forty-five minutes later, escorted by the police I arrived at the hospital. Before removing the boot, one of my former colleagues gave me an injection. While drifting between pain and nirvana I wondered if my beautician made house calls.
* * *
Monday was a day of learning truths. Other than to give birth to Andrew I had never been a hospital patient. I’ll admit I liked being on giving not receiving side of care. As I waited for the transport team to take me to the OR for the insertion of a pin in my left leg, my thoughts focused on all the dire complications I could remember. Some were the product of an imagination out of control. My heart thundered. My mouth was dry. Tears filled my eyes.
“You’ll be fine,” Beth Logan, neighbor and nurse said. “We’ll take good care of you.”
I clung to the assurance in her voice. “Just think of all the things that can go wrong.”
Beth patted my hand. “Just remember how seldom they occur.” In that moment I realized how important sympathy is for a patient. Before we could say more, the team arrived and wheeled me away.
The rest of the day passed in semi-consciousness. Drowsiness from the anesthesia and the pain medication scrambled my thoughts. Even Andrew’s scolding about my foolishness barely registered.
By Wednesday I felt caged and tired of pale green walls, gray tile floors and white sheets. The television turned low and switched from channel to channel failed to divert me from an aching need to escape confinement.
Dr. Beemish had promised to discharge me once crutch walking was mastered. By noon, the physical therapist hadn’t arrived. I toyed with my lunch and prayed for mint tea and the serenity of my apartment.
Lars, my friend and bridge partner, called from Santa Fe. He spends most of the winter months at his home there. He hoped I would heal quickly and grumbled about my penchant for adventure.
When I hung up I waved at Pete Duggan. He held a bouquet of yellow mums. “More flowers. Why?”
“Seemed the thing to do. You chose a dumb way to turn down my offer of a partnership.”
I laughed. “Breaking my leg wasn’t my first choice.”
He slouched on a chair and told me some stories about the storm. The tales made me laugh.
The arrival of Edward Potter, pastor of St. Stephens, ended Pete’s visit. The small, dapper man’s ringing tenor voice dripped with sympathy and gossip. While he regaled me with stories I would rather not have heard, Paul and Maria Prescott arrived. I eyed the thermos in Maria’s hand and sighed in anticipation. One of my wishes had come true.
“Mrs. Miller, I was so sorry you have the accident and I am not here to give you the help. When Paul and I come home last night Mrs. Sarah tell us you have the misfortune. I have brought the tea.”
Edward coughed. I made the introductions without mentioning Paul and Maria’s last name. Edward’s face showed a hint of disapproval. He stared at the gold hoop dangling from Paul’s ear. Edward kissed my cheek. “Katherine, I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
Would his prayers be for my healing of about my choice of friends? I hadn’t told Edward that Paul owns the most successful antique store in town or that Prescott Reproductions is on the way to success. Maria designs jewelry and has a growing reputation in her field.
Paul and I had met the year I converted the house. He’d come to evaluate the antiques I’d decided to sell. We had become friends. Several years later on a trip to Spain he’d met Maria. After their marriage he’d purchased the house next-door.
Maria opened the thermos. Some people crave caffeine. My choice is mint tea. Like a starving woman I reached for the cup, breathed in the aroma and sipped. The hint of chamomile made me smile. “Heavenly. Thank you. How was your trip?”
“We have the beautiful time. My madre and padre are happy to have us home again. Paul find many beautiful things for the shop. My niece, Bianca, want to live with us so she can go to school. Paul and I think on this.” She sat in the chare beside the bed.
Paul leaned against the door frame. His shoulder length blond hair had been pulled into a club at his nape. “I hear you nabbed the neighborhood thieves.”
I grinned. “With help from the police.”
“Good show. Any hope they’ll recover the loot?”
“Call Pete. He should know.”
The Prescott’s house had been the scene of the first robbery. A gold and emerald ring Maria had designed for a national juried show had been taken.
Maria shook her head. “I do not know how you could let the thieving men in your house. I would scream and run.”
“I didn’t think. Just acted.”
Paul crossed the room. “Now, why don’t I believe that? Have you ever acted impulsively?” He shook his head. “Bet you dismissed any options before you acted.”
He stood with his hands on Maria’s shoulders. She looked up at him and the love in her eyes made me sigh. Her dark coloring and near perfect features complimented his rugged handsomeness.
Maria patted my hand. “I should never have go away. First the bad man hit you. Then you fall in the snow. What if no one find you?”
“I’d be part of an ice floe on the river.” Her frown said she didn’t understand and explaining the town’s snow removal system was beyond me. “I’m fine, child.”
“When you come home I will care for you. My house takes just one hand.”
“We’ll see.” I looked up in time to catch Paul’s not. “When do you start remodeling?”
“Late summer. Once they spring you and you’re on your feet, stop by the ship and check out your investment.”
Three years ago when Paul started the reproduction workshop he needed a backer. I invested some of my savings. “I trust you.”
He laughed. “Could get you in trouble.”
“Maria would never let you cheat me.”
“Few people could.” Andrew stepped into the room. “Her trusting air is an act.”
“Is that a nice way to speak to your mother?”
He stood with his hands clasped behind his back like the presenting doctor for Grand Rounds. “Paul, Maria, good to see you.” He acknowledged their greetings with a nod and walked to the bed. “Can’t stay long or I’ll be late for office hours. Ruth will drop by this evening. Are you sure you won’t consider Hudson House for a few weeks?”
“Never.” Though the local nursing home was exclusive and expensive I wanted my own apartment and bed.
Paul clocked his heels and saluted me. Maria kissed my cheek. “Not to worry, Dr. Andrew. When your madre come home I will tend her.”
Andrew sat on the chair Maria had vacated. “Mom, I’m serious. If not Hudson House, let me hire a nurse.”
“There’s no need. With Ruth’s, Sarah’s and Maria’s help I’ll manage very well.”
“You are the most stubborn woman in existence.” He patted my hand. “I’ve found a tenant for your apartment. Then I won’t have to worry about you being in the house alone. She’s a friend of Ted. Divorced with two children.” He smiled. “Rachel’s a lovely woman. They’ll move in the end of the month.”
Though I preferred to select my own tenants, I decided to let him win this round. “Rachel what?”
“Rodgers. Ted sent her to me for some therapy sessions. Her divorce was messy. She even lost custody of her children. Ted helped her regain custody. She needs support. You’ll be good for her.”
Something about the way he said her name bothered me. For the past year I’ve noticed an inner restlessness about him. He seems discontent and to be searching for illusive answers. I sighed.
He pulled a paper from his briefcase. “Here’s the lease. Ted drew it up. Rachel has signed.”
I found a pen but first read the brief document. “This is different from the one the realtor provides.”
“Simpler. Ted said you and Rachel would be protected.”
“The terms favor the tenant.” I scratched out several of the terms. “Tell Ted to have this retyped and then I’ll sign.”
“Mom.” Andrew looked at what I wrote. “This is hardly fair to Rachel.”
Something in his voice raised a flood of questions. Before I had a chance to ask my son what was happening, the physical therapist arrived. Andrew left.
For forty-five minutes I embarked on an exhausting attempt to master the extra set of legs. I returned to bed and slept until the nurse woke me for dinner.
Shortly after the trays were collected Ruth arrived. “Mother Miller, you look so much better.”
She smiled. “Andrea’s in the hall near the elevators. Let me find a wheel chair
and take you to her.”
“I’ll use the crutches. Follow with the chair in case I falter.” I slid to the edge of the bed and positioned the crutches. I noticed the concern on her face. “I should be fine.”
“Of course you will be. I think you can master anything you try.”
My daughter-in-law isn’t beautiful but she knows how to dress. She keeps her dark brown hair cut in a style that’s perfect for her narrow face. Though she graduated from college with honors and could have had a brilliant career she’s chosen to serve as Andrew’s handmaiden. Even when his ideas clash with hers, she doesn’t disagree in public.
“Ready.” Ruth appeared at the door with a wheelchair.
Slowly at first and then with greater confidence, I walked toward the cluster of chairs near the elevators. A drop of perspiration slid down my back. Another made a path down my nose. One hundred steps. Fifty more. Then ten. The trip seemed longer than my usual morning walk.
“Grandma.” Andrea bounced from a chair and dashed toward me. Her dark brown hair had recently been cut and curled around her face. “Crutches, how neat. When you don’t need them could they be mine?” Hazel eyes like mine and Andrew’s sparkled with excitement.
After I eased into the wheelchair Ruth lifted the leg rest to support the case. “Why would you want them?”
“To put them in a dance.”
“Only if you promise I’ll be in the audience.”
“Sure.” She kissed my cheek. “Can I write my name on your cast?”
“I’d love that. You’re the first to ask. Guess my friends think I’m too old for cast decoration.”
“Not you. They’re the old ones. When you come home I’ll stay and be your nurse. Dad thinks you need one.”
“What about school?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Guess I can’t them.”
“Tell me what you’ve been doing?”
Those words released a spate of stories. To each I responded in the proper manner. When Andrea ran out of stories Ruth pushed me back to my room. She held the wheelchair while I transferred to the bed.
“Are you sure you can manage when you come home?” she asked. “You know I’ll be glad to help unless I’m tied up with Andrea’s schedule.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Andrew blames himself for the accident.”
“If anyone’s to blame it’s his fool mother. If I’d waited twenty minutes the street would have been scraped on both sides.” My sigh was part exasperation and part worry. “He’s too serious.”
She nodded. “It’s a phase.”
Ruth usually read Andrew like an expert but this time she was wrong.
“He’d feel better if he could do something. He loves you.”
“I know that.” Her concern for my son brought a ripple of guilt. My stubborn pride loosened its grip. “Why don’t you suggest he hire a woman to come every morning for a few hours? Now a nurse, mind you. Just someone to help me dress and do some light cleaning.” My sense of the ridiculous rose. “Have him get me a portable toilet.”
Ruth giggled. In that instant she looked no older than her daughter. “That’s wonderful. I can’t wait to see his face when I tell him about the commode.”
My laughter joined hers. “I tried to make the suggestion to him but couldn’t. He has a view of me I don’t deserve. He’d be embarrassed to think his mother has normal human functions.”
She patted my hand. “He does tend to put you on a pedestal. I’d better leave and get Andrea home.”
After she left I turned on the television. The program, one of the crime shows I always watch, barely registered. My thoughts centered on my son and some nameless concern for him.