Katherine Miller solves another murder, actually a series of them, by going undercove at a nursing home for the well-off. This is my latest release.
The Hudson House Murders
By Janet Lane Walters
The sun of the early April day shone in a cloudless sky. Yesterday’s rain had left the ground moist and easy for digging. Daffodils and tulips added color to the scene and delight to my spirits. I knelt beside one of the mint patches and loosened the soul around the emerging shoots. Soon the numerous varieties would be high and provide leaves for drying and blending into teas. This year, I planned to use green tea as a base in some of the blends.
I pulled weeds, then sank back to admire my work. My Maine Coon cat lay beside the gardening mat. With a boneless movement, Robespierre stretched. I sighed with envy and wished I had his supple spine. He ambled toward the car pulling into the driveway.
Jenna Taylor, one of my first floor tenants, slid from the red hatchback and waved. “Hi, Mrs. Miller.”
I rose and gathered my tools. “How was class?”
She grinned. “Thanks for your help on the Psych paper. Got an A.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Her hazel eyes filled with sadness. “You’re the only one.” She took the basket and carried it to the porch of my “Painted Lady.”
The Victorian house I’d lived in since my dead husband and I had settled in this Hudson Valley village had been converted into two apartments. I chose the second floor with its view of the river and rented the first. A week after my return from Santa Fe, I’d acquired Jenna and her friend as tenants. The young women were students at the local college, Jenna in Nursing and Louise in Business.
I paused at the foot of the steps. “Why don’t you call your grandmother? I’m sure she’d be glad to see you and as proud of your accomplishments as I am.”
She shook her head. “And bring my problems with my uncle on her head. He hated my mother. After my dad died, Mom asked him for help and he refused.” Tears glittered in her eyes. “You should have heard the things he accused me of after my cousin’s death. I’m better off staying away from family.”
I touched her hand. “The accident was five years ago. Surely he’s over the loss by now.”
She combed her fingers through her short honey blonde hair. “He never forgives or forgets.” She handed me the basket. “Have to change for work. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” I echoed and followed her inside. Robespierre trailed me upstairs. There, I spilled a little food in his dish. He thinks he should be fed every time he returns from outside. I always indulge him by adding a few dry tidbits.
I put the kettle on. I hurt for Jenna. She’d seen more tragedy in twenty-three years than anyone should bear. Her father’s death, her mother’s alcoholism and series of abusive relationships. Orphaned at fourteen, she’d gone to live with her grandmother. Three years later, there’d been the accident and her cousin had died. For some reason I hadn’t learned until recently, Jenna had become a runaway.
In January, I learned from an acquaintance who taught at the college that Jenna had enrolled as a student and was looking for an apartment. When she was a child, I’d felt sorry for her and angry about the way her uncle had treated her. I offered her the first floor apartment at a reduced rate and had signed a lease with the girls. Over the past few months, Jenna and I have become friends.
After a quick wash-up, I brewed a pot of mint tea. Robespierre began his greeting dance. Before I had a chance to see who had arrived, the cat slipped through his door. When I saw him on the landing with my young friend, Robby, I called a greeting.
“Mrs. Miller, can I visit?” Robby asked. “I need to ask you something really important.”
“Over milk and cookies?”
He nodded. “Mom said I can have three.”
“How does peanut butter with chocolate chips sound?” His grin provided my answer.
“Oh, yes.” He bent and scratched Robespierre’s head. The large cat rumbled like the sound of distant thunder.
Once the ritual greeting ended, three cookies and a glass of milk waited on the table. Robby pulled a stool to the sink and washed his hands. “See. I ‘membered.”
“So you did.” While he ate the first cookie, I filled a mug and sat across the table from him. “Do you want to tell me what’s bothering you?”
He propped his elbows on the table. “How can a boy be happy his grandma died? If I had one, I’d be sad.”
I sipped the tea. “That’s a hard question. Want to tell me how you learned the boy was happy about her death?”
He leaned forward. “He’s in my class. Always saying bad things ‘bout her. Said she was rich and mean ‘cause she wouldn’t buy him all the toys he wanted.”
“Sounds like he’s greedy.”
Robby’s head bobbed. “He sure is. Always saying how his things are better than mine ‘cause they cost more.”
“So why was he happy she died?”
“’Cause his mom and dad don’t fight with his grandma ‘bout her money. They got it all.”
I cradled the mug. “Is he happy now?”
“Guess so. He says so but he’s still mean.” Robby reached for a second cookie. “He got a new bike and lots of video games. He’s gonna live in a big new house. They can ‘ford a new one ‘cause no more money goes to that place.”
“You know, the one on the river where old people go. Our class went there once to sing. They liked us.”
The private nursing home is where the rich of the area go to recover from surgery or to spend their final years. The boy’s grandmother must have had the means to pay for the luxurious service. I patted Robby’s hand. “I’m not sure I have answers for your questions. I’m not sure there are any.”
He looked up. “If I had a grandma, she’d be just like you.”
“Thank you.” I patted his hand. “Tell you what. Why don’t I become your adopted grandma?”
His eyes widened. “You really could be mine. Like the puppy Pete said we’ll ‘dopt from the shelter.”
Being compared to a puppy tickled my thoughts. Laughter brought tears to my eyes. “Since I’m an experienced grandmother, I won’t need training in how to behave. The puppy will.”
He jumped up and hugged me. A frown wrinkled his forehead. Mom says I have to call you Mrs. Miller. A grandma should be called Grandma.” He bit the third cookie and swallowed. “I know. You can be Grandma Mrs. Miller. Wait ‘til I tell Mom and
Before he left, I gave him a tin of cookies. “Make sure you share.”
“Have to.” He giggled. “Pete would chase me around the table making pig sounds. I’m glad Mom married him.” He tucked the tin under his arm and opened the door. Robespierre dashed ahead of him. “Bye, Grandma Mrs. Miller.”
Just then, Jenna stepped from the downstairs apartment. “What was that about?”
“He wanted a grandmother so I adopted him.”
“That’s so nice.” Her voice broke.
“Come to church with me on Sunday.” Her grandmother was a member of St. Stephen’s. So was I. Martha Garner and I had become friends when we worked on several Women’s Guild projects. I know she often wondered what had happened to Jenna. Though I’d wanted to tell Martha about her granddaughter, I hadn’t broken my tenant’s confidence. Maybe the rift could be breached there.
“Not a good idea. Can’t you picture Uncle Marcus standing on the church steps with pointed finger and yelling, ‘Sinner, begone. Your kind isn’t welcome here.’ I wouldn’t want to tempt him to appear as less than a good Christian.”
The note of bitterness in her voice saddened me. She’d been alienated from her family for too long. Surely, there was a way to bring about reconciliation, at least with her grandmother. An idea occurred. When I returned to my apartment, I made two phone calls.
Two days later, Martha and I entered Le Lune, a local restaurant where Jenna worked as a hostess/waitress. The small room holds a dozen tables in a cozy atmosphere offering exquisite food. Silver moons decorated the pale blue walls. On the tables, metal lanterns with moon cutouts held flickering candles.
As we waited to be escorted to our table, Jenna looked up. “Mrs. Miller. Gran!” She dropped the menus and hugged Martha.
“Child, you look wonderful. Why haven’t you called the house? It’s been five years since I’ve seen you. I’ve missed you.” Tears trickled down Martha’s cheeks.
“You know why.” Jenna looked away but not before I saw tears glistening in her hazel eyes.
Martha nodded. “You could have let me know you were all right.”
Jenna made a face. “I couldn’t. Uncle Marcus warned me to stay away.”
Martha tisked. “I don’t understand him. Where were you all this time?”
“With Dad’s cousin. She died this fall so I decided to go to school.”
“But she lived so close.” Martha grasped Jenna’s hand. “Don’t think we didn’t try to find you. Your uncle hired a detective. How long have you been in town?”
“Since January, right before classes began at the college.” Jenna retrieved the menus. “Let me show you to a table.”
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t let me know,” Martha said.
“Uncle Marcus knew I was here. He told me not to call or visit. He was afraid you would be upset and have a heart attack. He said you’re not well.”
Martha shook her head. “My heart is sound. I don’t understand why he’s still grieving over what happened so long ago. Child, what did happen that day? He won’t tell me.”
Jenna led us to a table and held the chair for her grandmother. “I won’t either.” She handed us menus. “The veal dishes are great and I recommend the house dressing.”
We decided on veal piccata. After Jenna took our orders, she headed to the kitchen.
Martha’s gaze followed the young woman. “She looks wonderful. Thank you for arranging this meeting. I’ve always refused to believe the stories I was told.”
“And what were they?”
“That she was abusing alcohol and using drugs. I never saw any evidence when
she lived with me.”
“Who told you that?”
She frowned. “Maybe...I’m not sure but Sophie might have been the one.”
“How much did Marcus say about the accident?”
Martha took a deep breath. “That Jenna was high on something. I didn’t notice that when she left the house.”
“Why would he say that? Her tests were negative.”
“He said she and Mark quarreled and Jenna grabbed the keys. Mark tried to stop
her, but she sped off and crashed into the tree.”
“But Marcus wasn’t there.” I stared at the candle. Why had her son lied? Mark had been the driver and his blood alcohol had been well over the legal limit.
A few hours after the accident, the first he’d seen since he’d joined the police force, Pete came to the house. He’d known Mark. Pete was upset for another reason. As owner and editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, Marcus had kept the details out of print. How could I tell Martha, her son was a liar?
“Are you sure you heard everything he said?” I asked. “After all, you both were in shock.”
Martha frowned. “I’m sure he said Jenna was driving. You know, she walked out of the hospital and ran away. Why didn’t she come home?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
Our salads arrived. Jenna had been right about the dressing, a raspberry vinaigrette. When the entree arrived, the veal could be cut with a fork and the sauce had a bold lemon flavor.
Jenna returned to refill out cups and to deliver creme brulee. “You’ll enjoy this. My treat.”
Martha caught her hand. “Why are you working here?”
“The usual reasons.”
“I...” Martha shook her head.
“Gran, I’m doing fine.”
When Jenna left to deliver another customer’s meal, Martha leaned forward. “I just don’t know why the detective Marcus hired couldn’t find her. She was living an hour from here.”
Had he really hired a detective? My few encounters with her son regarding church matters made me doubt he did. Marcus Garner believed his way was the right and only way. Over the years, I’ve watched him manipulate others, including his mother. I believed he had no intention of sharing his mother’s wealth with a soul, especially not his niece. His young daughters were spoiled. His second wife was years younger and she thought money could purchase anything or anyone.
“Why didn’t Jenna come to me for help?”
“Maybe she doesn’t want money.”
“But that’s why she quarreled with Mark. She believed he was my sole heir and that wasn’t true.”
The last spoon of dessert slid down my throat. “Let me handle the check and take you home.” I couldn’t answer her question. Would she ask the one person who could? Her son.
She touched my hand. “You don’t want to be involved and I don’t blame you. Family problems shouldn’t spill onto friends.”
I was already involved. Jenna was my tenant and Martha, my friend. I would find a way to mend the shattered pieces. How, I didn’t know.
The April Saturday held a hint of summer. With a pitcher of iced mint tea on the table between us, I quizzed Jenna for a test in Anatomy. A car pulled in at the curb. Jenna’s shoulders tensed. When I looked up, the reason for her uneasiness was evident. Marcus Garner strode up the walk. He’d inherited his height and build from his father. Only his black hair and dark eyes came from Martha.
“Marcus, what brings you?”
The owner of the local newspaper glared. “The pair of you.” Anger darkened his eyes. “Katherine, my family doesn’t need your interference. I don’t appreciate what you did with my mother the other evening.”
I rose and faced him. “Just what’s wrong with two friends having dinner at the best restaurant in town?”
“I know what you were up to.” He stabbed his finger toward me. “Stay out of my business.” He turned to Jenna. “What did I tell you when I heard you were back in town?”
“Not to see Gran.”
“But you did and you have her all upset. She doesn’t need another addict siphoning her money.”
Jenna sprang to her feet. “I’ve never done drugs and I don’t abuse alcohol. I saw
how those things messed up my mother and Mark.”
“Liar. Mark had no substance abuse problems. For the last time, stay away from my mother.”
“She’s my grandmother and I love her.”
He raised his fist and swung. I grabbed his arm and deflected the blow. “Marcus Garner, you have no right to come on my property and threaten anyone.”
“Just stay our of my business.” He stomped to his car and drove away.
I shook my head. How could a middle-aged pillar of the community have so little restraint?
“You should have let him hit me.”
“He would have been talking to the police.” She reached for the tea. “Sorry.”
“What for? He’s the one at fault.” I patted her hand. “If Martha wants to see you, he has no reason to say she can’t.”
She sucked in a breath. “I shouldn’t drag you into my problems. Maybe I need to find another apartment.”
“Absolutely not. Your uncle and I have had our differences in the past. He doesn’t frighten me either.” I frowned. “He can be rude, but I wonder what has him so worried. Could he have a guilty conscience? Maybe he’s afraid your grandmother will learn the detective was a hoax.”
Jenna settled in the chair. “I doubt he feels guilty about anything. He’s afraid Gran will leave her money to someone other than him. When Granddad died, Uncle Marcus was furious when he received the paper and no money. He and Sophie had been married a year. She wasn’t happy either.”
My thoughts churned. If Marcus was living off the profits from the paper, he could be over-extended, especially with the show of wealth Sophie enjoyed. Was Martha subsidizing his lifestyle or was he counting on a large inheritance? I picked up the study guide. “Back to Anatomy.”
On Sunday morning, I rode to church with the Duggans. Since I usually have Sunday dinner at my son’s, my family would meet me in our usual pew. I slid into the back seat beside Robby.
“Hi, Grandma Mrs. Miller.”
Pete laughed so hard his cheeks nearly matched his red hair. “So, Sherlock, you have a new title.”
“I like it.”
Beth turned. Her eyes sparkled. “Robby has plans for you. Have dinner with us soon.”
“Love to. I’ll bring dessert.”
“Cookies.” Pete and Robby shouted in unison.
“Have you heard from Lars?” Beth asked.
“Any news on the houses there?” Pete asked. “He needs to get back to keep trouble from finding you.”
“He’s hoping at least one of the houses will sell soon. But trouble? Haven’t had much lately.”
“Right.” Skepticism filled his voice. “What’s this I hear about a visit from Marcus Garner?”
“Just a verbal drive-by.”
When we reached St. Stephen’s, Pete let us out while he found a parking space. With three churches in two blocks, Sunday morning parking rivals the mall during the Christmas rush. I walked up the granite steps and stepped into the vestibule.
Martha stood with her daughter-in-law. She came toward me. “See me after church. There’s something I’d like you to do for me.” Her dark eyes glowed with -- anger, irritation?
“See you at coffee hour.” Hopefully, I could persuade Andrew to stay. I spotted my granddaughter and made my way down the center aisle.
Andrea hugged me. “Mom and Dad are parking the car. I came to save our seats.”
I winked. Since my resignation as organist, I’ve sat in this pew where the acoustics are wonderful. Everyone in the congregation knows this is my place.
While we waited for the service to begin, I chatted with several of my friends. The Garners walked down the aisle and settled in the second row, their accustomed place. The younger girl turned and stuck out her tongue. She mouthed something.
Andrea jumped to her feet. “Not here.” I touched her arm. “What’s this about?”
“Tammy’s a brat. She’s mad ‘cause I was picked for a solo in the spring recital. She didn’t get one.”
“Some people can’t handle losing.”
She nodded. “She put honey in my dance shoes. Mom had to buy me a new pair.”
“Are you sure she was the one?”
“She laughed and bragged to the other girls. They stopped talking to her. Tammy thinks because she’s rich and goes to that private school she’s better than us. And her mother --” Andrea rolled her eyes. “Mrs. Garner yelled at Miss Juliette about Tammy being stuck in the company. Miss Juliette said solos are based on talent and hard work, not money.”
“Miss Juliette’s right.”
“Tammy says her mother’s hunting for another dance company. There’s one across the river but you have to go to auditions. Miss Juliette told Mrs. Garner she could take Tammy out of the company, but she needed to pay her bill first.”
Andrew and Ruth arrived. In an instant, my granddaughter changed from village gossip to young lady.
When the service ended, I remained to hear the postlude. The organist, while competent, has none of Roger’s flair or charisma. A plus for the church but a loss to music lovers.
Instead of heading to Fellowship Hall, Marcus herded his mother toward the vestibule. She halted at the end of my pew. Marcus tugged on her arm. “Mother, we’ll be late.”
She glared. “I need to speak to Katherine.”
“Call her tonight or tomorrow. Sophie was fortunate enough to obtain luncheon reservations at Mountain View. We must be there for our seating time.”
“Later,” she called as he propelled her forward.
I followed. At the head of the steps, Martha shook off Marcus’ hand. Her heel twisted. She fell and slid down the steps. I dashed to her side and knelt. She grimaced. Her face was as gray as her hair. When I saw the way her leg was positioned, I was sure her hip was fractured. I felt for her pulse.
“Don’t try to get up.” I rolled my stole and slipped it under her head. “Someone call for an ambulance.”
Marcus glared at me. “Katherine, this is your fault.”
“Excuse me. If you hadn’t dragged your mother from the church, she wouldn’t have pulled away from you. Why don’t you accept the responsibility for your own actions?”
Marcus’ wife left her car at the curb. “Marcus, our reservations. We can’t be late. We won’t get another seating for months. You know the rule. They call your name three times and if you don’t answer, they give your time away.”
“Sophie, go ahead. Take the girls. I’ll stay with mother.”
“Fine, stay.” she snapped. She hurried to the car.
Amazing, I thought. Reservations at a restaurant were more important than her mother-in-law’s health.
The oldest daughter tugged on her father’s arm. “Daddy, I’ll stay.”
He shook his head. “Go with your mother.”
“What if Grandmother Garner has to have an operation?”
I looked up. “They won’t take her to surgery for hours, especially if she’s had breakfast.”
“Okay.” The child ran off.
My son arrived. “Ambulance is on the way. Her vitals?”
“Pulse rapid but steady. I’m sure the pain is at fault.”
Andrew nodded. He helped me to my feet.
“Katherine. Come. Tomorrow.”
We waited until the ambulance arrived, then drove to my son’s house. I tried Jenna’s number and gave up after ten rings. Ruth and I collaborated on dinner. After we ate, Andrew went to his study. A few minutes later, he motioned to me. “Just called the hospital. Mrs. Garner’s in surgery.”
“Who’s the surgeon?”
“Good.” He’d done the surgery when I broke my leg. Also, as a nurse at the hospital, I’d taken care of his patients and knew he was excellent.
The rest of the day was spent catching up with my family’s doings. That evening when Andrew dropped me off, I knocked on the door of the first floor apartment.
Jenna answered. “What’s wrong?”
“Your grandmother fell on the steps at church. She fractured her hip.”
Jenna blanched. “Will she be all right?”
“She has a good surgeon and for her age is in good health. They did the surgery this afternoon. I called but you weren’t here.”
“I worked brunch and part of dinner. I’m going to see her.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Probably not, but I have to be sure she’s all right.”
While I understood her concern and need, I hoped Marcus would understand.
Later that evening as I enjoyed a mug of tea, I heard someone at the door. “Who’s there?”
“Jenna. Can I talk to you?”
I opened the door. Her eyes were red from crying, but her posture telegraphed anger. “What happened?”
“Gran is fine. Awake and alert.” Jenna sank on one of the kitchen chairs. “Uncle Marcus dragged me from the room and told the private duty nurse I wasn’t allowed to visit again. I saw Gran for a moment. The nurse followed me down the hall and said Gran had come through surgery with no problems. Why is he so mean?”
“I wish I knew.” I filled a mug for her. “I’ll visit tomorrow and keep you posted. You can always call her.”
“And have him remove her phone.” She sampled the tea. “What really happened? He said the accident was your fault.”
“She wanted to tell me something, but he was rushing her. When they started down the steps, she pulled away, slipped and fell. I don’t understand your uncle. Why would he lie?”
“Maybe to make trouble between us. Won’t happen.” She smiled. “Did Sophie really rush off to lunch?”
“Someone at the restaurant laughed about her haste. Shows her priorities.”
“My very thought. I’ve always known social climbing was her forte. The oldest daughter offered to stay, but Marcus sent her with her mother.”
“Maybe she’s Gran’s favorite the way Mark was.”
“I don’t think your grandmother had favorites in the past or now.”
“But I heard --”
“What someone wanted you to hear.”
Jenna drained her mug. “I think you’re right.” She rose. “Thanks for the tea and the shoulder. I’d better go. Early class tomorrow. When you see Gran, tell her I love her and I’ll find a way to visit.”
I waited until after lunch to visit Martha at the hospital. As I walked down the corridor of the Surgical Unit, the familiar scents and sounds made me wish I was back in uniform. A very bad idea. I remembered what had happened when I resurfaced as a church organist. Maybe the desire to return was akin to an old racehorse wanting to take another lap around the track.
I paused outside Martha’s private room and listened for voices. Hearing none I wanted to avoid, I tapped on the partially open door. The nurse who appeared had been a colleague until she opted for private duty.
“Kate, how nice to see you. Heard you retired. Are you visiting someone?”
“Martha. We’re old friends.”
She shook her head. “Her son doesn’t want anyone other than family visiting. She needs to rest.”
“Think of this as a pastoral call. We attend the same church.” On occasion, I made hospital calls for our pastor.
“Katherine, is that you?” Martha asked.
“Let her in. It’s vital for me to speak to her.”
Fran shrugged. “Go ahead. You can sit with her while I grab lunch. Her daughter-in-law was due to relieve me a half hour ago. Her son doesn’t want her left alone.”
To keep out visitors who didn’t meet his approval was my take on the order. “Thanks.” I entered and went to the bedside. “How are you feeling?”
“Sore. Dumb. Awkward. I’m glad you came.”
“Jenna says she loves you and she’ll find a way to visit.”
“Tell her to wait until I go to Hudson House. Marcus is so over-protective. When I’m there, he’ll know I’m recovering and he won’t worry so.” She clasped my hand. “Give me my handbag.”
I looked in the bedside stand and the closet. “Not here.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “That’s right. I had it put in the safe.”
Why hadn’t she sent her valuables home with her son? “I guess whatever you wanted to give me will have to wait.”
She nodded. “There are some things at the house I want you to remove.”
What’s going on?” I turned. Sophie Garner stood in the doorway. She flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder.
“I’m visiting,” I said.
“Marcus doesn’t want Mother Garner disturbed. Did that stupid nurse let you in? I’ll see she’s fired at once.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort.” Martha’s voice held an iron edge. “I pay her and if I think she deserves to be fired, I will. You’re almost an hour late to relieve her. Kate kindly volunteered to stay while the nurse had lunch.”
Sophie waved her red-tipped fingers. “Did you expect me to walk out on Linda Eliot? She’s a very influential person around the county.”
Martha snorted. “A newcomer with new money. The Garners have been forces to reckon with for over a hundred years, but you always did like flash.” She dropped her hand on the bed. “Don’t let her vulgar money sway you, but there’s no sense trying to make silk from trash.”
“How can you say that? I’ve given you two lovely granddaughters.” Sophie turned to me. “You can leave. When I tell Marcus you were here, he’ll be livid.”
“You’ll tell him nothing.” Martha glared. “Sophie, step outside. I want to speak to Katherine alone.”
“I will not.”
I clasped Martha’s hand. “It’s all right. I’ll talk to you later.”
Martha nodded. “Let my nurse know Sophie’s here and she has no reason to worry or hurry her break.”
“Will do.” I slipped past Sophie and strode down the hall. At the nurses’ lounge, I opened the door and passed Martha’s message to Fran.