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    Registered User DRayVan's Avatar
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    Baker's Dozen

    A grieving mother plans to murder con artists when they arrive at her mansion for private, fake séances, but the housekeeper schemes to end the body count at a baker’s dozen.

    May 31, 1903

    At the end of a tree-lined lane on a five-hundred-acre plot outside Rolling Green, Virginia, the Winnaford mansion, a three-story, fifty-room dwelling, stood aloof, out-of-character for the community, luxurious beyond measure. Ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, and many blooming flowers encircled the structure while columnar trees flanked the main entranceway. Inside, its ample, airy, and well-lit foyer welcomed each visitor. In contrast, its gloomy, dreary, and somber library stifled any feelings of joy, but its massive stone fireplace added a soft glow to brighten its otherwise dismal ambiance.

    On the last Sunday in May, Mrs. Abigail Winnaford sat eating and perusing the newspaper when Anna Hillyer, the housekeeper, entered. She curtsied. “Sorry to interrupt yer lunch, ma’am, but three gentlemen are here to see ya. I directed them to the study.”

    “Who are they, Anna?” asked Mrs. Winnaford.

    Anna clasped her hands while she spoke. “Commissioner Brinks, Pastor Broyles, and yer lawyer, Mr. Whitestone.”

    Mrs. Winnaford clutched at her breast as the color drained from her face. Then, she stood and steadied herself against the table’s edge. Anna took hold of her arm.

    “Thank you, Anna. I’ll be all right.”

    Mrs. Winnaford entered the study, and the men stood in unison. After that, solemnly and dolefully, they advanced toward her, their hands stretched outward. She stood firm, clutching a hanky. “Tell me... What has happened to Emma?”

    “How did you... A train accident, Abigail,” said Pastor Broyles, “and Emma was--”

    “Did she suffer?” she asked, stepping forward and touching a nearby settee for support.

    “She died instantly,” said the commissioner.

    Mrs. Winnaford turned away; her cold steel-grey eyes stared into empty space. “Please leave me to my grief, gentlemen.”

    “Of course,” said Mr. Whitestone. “I’ll be in touch regarding Emma’s estate.”

    “If there is anything I can--” The commissioner began to ask, but Mrs. Winnaford interrupted him.

    “No. Nothing at the moment. Please go.” She turned away and avoided making eye contact with them.

    “Well... Yes,” said Pastor Broyles, bowing slightly and extending his arms around the men’s waists. “Shall we, gentlemen?”

    Mary, the downstairs maid, ushered them to the door while Mrs. Winnaford stood alone in the study, dry-eyed and stoic. Emma was laid to rest beside her father on June 4, 1903, in the family plot under a spreading chestnut tree a mere ten years after his passing. Johnathan had often said of the tree. “It’s a symbol of the Winnaford family’s prestige, vitality, and longevity.”

    After Emma’s death, Mrs. Winnaford retreated from all outside contacts during her grieving time and fell into a state of deep depression. On several occasions, Anna tried encouraging her to seek help. But she would have no part of it and withdrew inwardly all the more. By summer’s end, her depression had reached its peak.

    “Mrs. Winnaford... Abigail... Please.” Anna pleaded. “It pains me so to see ya like this.”

    “Emma was so young, Anna,” she said, crying. “So young.”

    “Perhaps we can contact her spirit. Then ya’ll find peace.”

    Mrs. Winnaford shook her head. “I don’t believe in spirits... And what would Pastor say?”

    “He don’t havta know,” said Anna, smiling.

    ###

    October 22, 1903

    When the scheduled time for the séance arrived, Mrs. Winnaford paced the floor, wringing her hands. “I can’t go through with this, Anna.”

    Anna put her arm around Mrs. Winnaford’s waist. “He’ll be here at any moment, and ya’ll do fine. Just follow his instructions and listen to what he has to say.”

    Mrs. Winnaford stood upright and took a deep breath. “Conduct him to the library... No, the study... No, the library.”

    Anna started for the foyer but turned back. “But Mary answers the door, ma’am.”

    “You do it. This was your idea, after all.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” said Anna, continuing to the foyer.

    ###

    After the séance concluded, Anna ushered the young man out, closed the front door, and hurried to the library. “Well... I can hardly wait to hear.”

    Mrs. Winnaford stood, facing the larger-than-life portrait of Emma above the mantel. “He’s a fraud. That charlatan tried to deceive me.”

    “How?”

    Mrs. Winnaford turned to Anna. “By claiming he’d contacted Emma’s spirit.”

    “How’d you know he didn’t?” asked Anna, stepping forward.

    “The details that Emma’s spirit told him weren’t true, couldn’t be true,” said Mrs. Winnaford, extending her hand toward the portrait.

    “What was said?”

    Mrs. Winnaford gazed at the portrait again. “That most spirits there are old or infirmed. That Emma is so terribly lonely, and she wants, she needs a male companion nearer her age with vitality and virility.”

    Anna took Mrs. Winnaford by her elbow. “Maybe--”

    “My young, beautiful Emma? Not likely,” she said, yanking her elbow free and stepping back. “Manly spirits would be buzzing around her like bees to honey!”

    “Abigail, listen... It might be that way there, just like he said. Remember the Russian Flu? It mainly killed the young, the old, and the infirmed. A million died worldwide.”

    “Oh, my God,” said Mrs. Winnaford, staggering to a nearby chair and slumping into it. She pondered for a few moments, then stood. “You must help me help Emma.”

    “I don’t like the look in yer eyes, Abigail.”

    “Schedule another séance,” said Mrs. Winnaford. “Ensure he’s a virile, young man.”

    “What are ya planning?”

    “For Emma,” said Mrs. Winnaford, gazing at the portrait. “We’ll do this for Emma.”

    “Do what?”

    “You’ll see in due time, Anna. In due time.”

    ###

    March 10, 1907

    The morning began as each had for the past three years. Now somewhat gaunt, Mrs. Abigail Winnaford stood, gazing at Emma’s portrait. The glow of a fire bathed her figure while she took a hanky from her pocket and wiped her eyes and then her nose.

    Mrs. Winnaford had recently turned seventy, yet her youthful beauty was still evident despite a modest layer of makeup to hide her facial wrinkles. Nevertheless, she stood as stoic, stern, and stringent as ever. Bedecked in jewels and the finest fashions, she was still alluring, but years of grief had taken its toll on her once bright, grey eyes, now sunken and reddened.

    She spoke to the portrait in a hushed voice. “Emma, dear.” She sniffled. “Soon.”

    Anna--now podgy and graying--stood nearby, watching and listening. Then, when she overheard Mrs. Winnaford, Anna confronted her. “Abigail. What did ya mean by soon? Didn’t we agree there’d be no more?”

    “I agreed to no such thing,” said Mrs. Winnaford, whirling toward Anna and shaking her head. “You said no more, not I.”

    “It must stop,” said Anna, shaking her finger at Mrs. Winnaford. “Ain’t twelve enough?”

    “We’ll never know for certain, so we must keep on.”

    “It’s become an obsession, Abigail. Something evil. Get help.”

    “Remember your station, Anna.”

    “Station or no station. End this, or I’ll--”

    “Or, what, Anna? You’re as deeply involved as I am.”

    “I’ll find a way.”

    Mrs. Winnaford glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. “Until you do... A new candidate arrives at three o’clock.”

    “Ya didn’t?”

    “Yes, I did,” said Mrs. Winnaford, looking at the portrait. “I invited Mr. Gamboni to conduct a séance in this very room under Emma’s watchful eyes.” She turned to Anna. “And you’ll prepare the desert coffee as always. Is that clear?”

    “Abigail!”

    “Do as you’re instructed, Anna!”

    “Yes, ma’am. But... No... More... He’ll be the last one.”

    “We shall see. Now be a good girl and get everything ready for his visit.”

    ###

    The Heritage Park’s Executive Suite’s two large rooms were of equal size with twelve-foot ceilings and walls covered with the latest French print paper. Tall, sliding pocket doors separated the rooms.

    The bedroom had a massive carved poster bed with lavish, adjoining bathing facilities and a dressing room. A matching two-chair and setee ensemble dominated the main sitting room. Off to the left near a window, coordinated side and sitting chairs sequestered a writing desk.

    Samuel Morris--The Great Gamboni--sat at the desk, reviewing the bookings and accounts. Gamboni was a tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered, thirty-five-year-old man whose personality commanded attention by merely entering a room.

    Alfred Young was Gamboni’s business manager, chauffeur, and teacher, a medium-built, graying, fifty-two-year-old man. He had been accidentally crippled during a stage mishap and, since then, has needed a walking cane to ambulate. He thumped as he entered the sitting room.

    “Ah, Alfred,” said Gamboni, glancing up and back to the ledger. “Just going over the bookings.”

    “How’d we do with the widow Winslow?” asked Alfred.

    Gamboni looked up from the ledger. “Excellent haul, Alfred. I hypnotized her and got the goods, as it were, on the old couple. Then it was easy to throw my voice and mimic dear ole Harold. Without much effort, she was convinced that he had returned from the hereafter, and they spent the afternoon reminiscing their most intimate escapades.” Gamboni rolled his eyes and shook his head. “It was quite disgusting listening to that octogenarian recount her sexual escapades, but it earned us a sizable bonus and probably, considerable word-of-mouth business.”

    Alfred hobbled closer and took a ledger from Gamboni. “I don’t know how you do it, Sam, without so much as a blink of an eye.” He ran his finger down the entries. “Fifteen widows in aught ten. Twenty-three in aught eleven. How many do you think you’ll bilk by the end of this year? And how many cities have we visited? I’ve lost count.”

    “Bilk, you say? Well, don’t turn all rightness on me, Alfred. If your conscience overwhelms your sensibilities, you can return to the penny-ante vaudeville shows where I found you. How much per week did you earn? Twenty dollars, tops?”

    Alfred closed the ledger and put it on the desk. “Let’s not get hasty, Sam. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m too old to return to the stage, and those new moving-picture cinemas will kill off vaudeville anyway.”

    “I’m quite grateful to you, Alfred, for teaching me your ventriloquism and hypnotism act, but I’ve taken it beyond anything you could’ve imagined. Instead of a few dollars per performance, I’m rewarded hundreds, sometimes thousands.”

    “I never dreamed you’d push it this far.”

    Gamboni gazed out the window, ignoring Alfred. “If the gullible old gals want me to entertain them--and that’s all it is: entertainment--I’m ready to accommodate them for the right price.”

    Gamboni gestured with a wave of his arms. “We’ve reached the pinnacle of our game, Alfred. Fame, fortune, and beautiful women for the asking, what more could we ask for?”

    Alfred cringed.

    “I’m an actor, and I’m pretty good; in fact, I’m one of the best, if not the best. Have you seen the backlog of bookings recently?”

    Alfred picked up the ledger again. “Yes. You have solid bookings for the next six weeks.”

    “That should be proof enough. I want you to cross-check them. Decline any widow who isn’t wealthy and schedule one who is. We might as well capitalize on our popularity as long as we can.”

    “Okay, Sam. You’re the boss, as they say.”

    Gamboni gazed out the window again. “By the way, Alfred... It’s Mr. Gamboni.”

    “What’s that?”

    Gamboni pivoted to Alfred. “You heard me. From now on, you are to address me as Mr. Gamboni, not Sam.”

    “Isn’t that a bit too far, even for you?” asked Alfred, gripping his cane so tightly, his knuckles turned white.

    “No, it’s quite fitting for someone of my standing, don’t you think?”

    “As you wish, Mister... Gamboni,” said Alfred, tossing the ledger on the desk.

    Gamboni looked out the window, ignoring Alfred.

    Alfred turned, cocked his head, and hobbled toward the door.

    ###

    Gamboni began dressing for his three o’clock appointment. “Are you ready, Alfred? You know how I hate to be late for an appointment.”

    Alfred slid open the pocket doors and entered the bedroom. “I’m ready.” His cane thumped as he hobbled toward Gamboni’s dressing room. “Did you study the notes I collected on Mrs. Winnaford?”

    Gamboni adjusted his necktie in the mirror. “I glanced at them.”

    Alfred entered the dressing room. “She’s a mysterious one,” he said with concern written over his face.

    Gamboni cocked his head toward Alfred. “Help me with this cantankerous necktie, will you?”

    Alfred limped closer to Gamboni and took the tie by the ends. He stretched it tight around Gamboni’s neck. “I’m amazed you can tie your shoes.” They chuckled while Alfred attempted to tie the necktie. But Gamboni wouldn’t hold still. “Stop moving,” said Albert.

    “How so?” asked Gamboni.

    “You’re fidgeting.”

    “Not that,” said Gamboni. “I mean the widow--‘a mysterious one,’ you said.”

    “There... Perfection if I may compliment myself.”

    “And the widow?” asked Gamboni.

    “She holds séances to contact her daughter’s spirit.”

    Gamboni admired himself in the mirror. “Splendid, Alfred. Tied like a master... Well, isn’t that what they all want?”

    “But can you fake a woman’s voice?”

    “Convincingly enough,” said Gamboni.

    “There’s more... Some have gone missing after holding a séance at the Winnaford mansion.”

    Gamboni slicked down and combed his hair. He left no hair out of place. “Speak plainly, Alfred. Who’s gone missing?”

    “Mediums.”

    Gamboni put on his coat and made some final adjustments in front of the mirror. “They probably struck gold with the old gal. Now traveling the Continent, most likely.”

    Alfred shook his head and gestured with his hand. “I have my doubts... Pass on this one.

    Gamboni strutted in front of the mirror. He tugged on his sleeves and adjusted his lapels once more. “Not on your life, Alfred. She’s the wealthiest yet.”

    Alfred put his hand on Gamboni’s shoulder. “For once, please take my advice, dear friend, and skip this performance.”

    Gamboni turned away and picked up his hat and topcoat. “Ridiculous, Alfred. There’s a fortune waiting for us.” He checked his watch. “And I’ll be late if you don’t get a move on. Bring the car around.”

    Alfred frowned, showing concern. “If you insist.” He hobbled to the door.

    Gamboni called after him. “Can’t you move any faster?”

    ###

    The weather changed by the hour--dark clouds blew in from the north, obscuring the sun and bringing the threat of imminent rain. Thunder rumbled in the distance and moved ever closer. A cold wind sent swirls of dust airborne, swaying tree limbs and rustling bushes.

    The Winnaford mansion’s long, curving, cobblestone driveway had an iron chain draped from marble columns on either side. Alfred stopped the car at the portico, got out, and opened the passenger door.

    “Sam?”

    Gamboni hesitated and looked up. “Let’s not have a scene, Alfred.”

    “Listen, Sam... Mr. Gamboni, I have an awful feeling about this place, an evil foreboding. Please stay in the car, and let me take you back to the hotel.”

    Gamboni protested. “Don’t be like an old mother-hen, Alfred. This’ll be our greatest haul, and then, we’ll travel to Europe, the Far East, Japan. Just two old friends enjoying the good life. Now, go back to the hotel and await my call.”

    Gamboni got out of the car. “I’ll be all right, dear friend. After all, I’m The Great Gamboni.”

    They chuckled and shook hands. Gamboni climbed the stairs to the front door and knocked while Alfred drove away.

    ###

    Anna opened the front door.

    Gamboni stood under the portico and removed his hat. “Mr. Gamboni, at your service. I have an appointment with Mrs. Winnaford for a private séance.”

    “Yes, Mr. Gamboni. My mistress is expecting ya.”

    Gamboni stepped into the foyer. Despite the increasing gloomy weather outside, it was cheery, brightly lit, and exquisitely decorated. Ornate statues, oils, and plants bordered the marble-inlaid tiled floor.

    Anna curtsied and asked, “May I take yer hat and coat?”

    “Certainly. Thank you.”

    Anna put them in a side closet and turned to Gamboni. “Please come this way.”

    Gamboni followed Anna into the library. He quickly scanned for valuable items and noticed hand-carved figurines, hand-painted curios, and first editions. He smiled.

    Except for the fire casting a warm glow in the room, the library was poorly lit. The outside light offered little relief from the room’s dreariness with the sun hidden behind the clouds.

    Anna stopped by the fireplace. “My mistress will join ya shortly.” She turned to leave but turned back. “Ya may find the smoking chair quite comfy,” said Anna, pointing to an over-stuffed chair.

    “I prefer to examine this portrait for a few moments,” said Gamboni, gazing at the painting above the mantle. “Who is this woman? She’s stunning. Tell me all about her.”

    “Tis Emma. Emma Winnaford. My mistress’ daughter.”

    “Emma? My word. Her obituary photo didn’t do her justice.”

    “The gloom over this house lasted a year or more.”

    “I’m sorry for your loss. Perhaps we’ll contact Emma’s spirit during the séance.”

    Anna cocked her head. “That’s why yer here, isn’t it, sir?”

    “Yes, it is. Quite--” Gamboni cleared his throat and stepped backward. “Well--” He cleared his throat again. “I’ll enjoy the portrait while I wait.”

    “As ya wish, sir,” said Anna, curtsying and leaving Gamboni to admire the portrait alone.

    ###

    The butler pantry’s large room and tall ceilings had wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, glass-door cabinets with dishes, serving pieces, glassware, cups, soup tureens, and a coffee/tea maker. It had several drawers for silverware as well.

    Anna joined Mrs. Winnaford in the pantry. They each peeked through the partially opened door and watched Gamboni, unobserved.

    “What do you think, Anna?” whispered Mrs. Winnaford.

    “He’s a handsome one. More so than any of the others.”

    “Beyond his outward appearances.”

    “I encountered him only a few minutes ago,” whispered Anna.

    “First impressions then.”

    “He’s the only one who wanted to know more about Emma. He’s quite taken by her portrait, almost mesmerized by it.”

    Mrs. Winnaford peeked to observe him again. “He is tall and broad-shouldered and--”

    Anna joined her. “And in the prime of his life.”

    “Are you a good gauge of age, Anna?”

    “Early to mid-thirties, I’d guess.”

    “My guess as well.”

    “Should I prepare the dessert coffee?” whispered Anna.

    “You’re too hasty, Anna,” said Mrs. Winnaford, adjusting her dress. “I must meet Mr. Gamboni first. Then I’ll decide. Meanwhile, prepare tea and sandwiches.”

    Anna murmured and turned to her chores. Mrs. Winnaford stepped into the library.

    Gamboni extended his hand and lightly held hers for a moment. “Mrs. Winnaford, I presume. Gamboni at your service.”

    “Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Gamboni. Your reputation precedes you.”

    “A good reputation, I trust.” Gamboni reached for a business card and handed it to Mrs. Winnaford. She took it and gave it a quick glance.

    “The... Great... Gamboni,” said Mrs. Winnaford, turning the card over. It was blank. “That’s it? Nothing else? It’s rather pretentious, don’t you think?”

    Gamboni shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He tried to force a casual smile without looking too fake. “Uh... Shouldn’t we sit and start the séance.”

    “Before starting, we should have some refreshments.” Mrs. Winnaford turned toward the pantry and called. “Anna... Anna!”

    Mrs. Winnaford and Gamboni sat in silence while the fire cast its warmth on them. His card casually slipped from her fingers and landed on a side table.

    Anna entered the room. “Yes, ma’am. Coffee?”

    “No, Anna... Not quite yet. First, some tea and sandwiches.”

    Anna frowned, curtsied, and left.

    “I am deeply sorry for the loss of your daughter, Emma. Please accept my sincerest condolences.”

    “You are very kind, Mr. Gamboni.”

    “Perhaps we will contact Emma’s spirit.”

    “Perhaps we will. Perhaps we will indeed.”

    Anna returned, pushing a serving cart of refreshments. “Refreshments are served. Tea, ma’am?”

    “Yes, thank you, Anna.”

    “Mr. Gamboni? Milk? Sugar?”

    “Thank you, no--just tea.”

    “That’ll be all, Anna. We’ll manage the sandwiches.”

    “Yes, ma’am. Shall I brew the coffee, now?”

    “Yes... But not too hot, Anna. Too much heat bitters the taste, you know.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” Anna smiled, curtsied, and departed.

    “Now, Mr. Gamboni, may I ask a few personal questions before the séance?”

    “Of course.”

    “Are you from nearby?”

    “No. My business manager, Alfred, and I travel where my appointments take us. We are staying at the Heritage Park Hotel on this trip.”

    “Many appointments?”

    “Alfred managed to book four besides you, and then we pack up and move on. You’re our last one.”

    “Interesting... No relatives or acquaintances in town?”

    “Except for appointments, Alfred and I are strangers in your beautiful city... Uh... Well... Shouldn’t we proceed with the séance?”

    “Not before a dessert coffee. Anna.” Mrs. Winnaford raised her voice. “Anna!”

    Anna entered and curtsied. “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Coffee... The unique blend, Anna.”

    “Right away, ma’am. Right away.” Anna grinned, curtsied, and exited to the butler’s pantry.

    “You’ll like this unique blend, Mr. Gamboni. Smooth as silk to the palate.”

    “Who’s your roaster?”

    “Oh no, Mr. Gamboni, I couldn’t reveal our roaster. It’s a family secret.”

    “A unique blend from a mysterious roaster. Oh, the anticipation... You heighten the delight of a good cup of coffee all the more, Madam.”

    “You have no idea.”

    Anna returned with two coffees on a silver tray with creamer and a sugar bowl. “Cream? Sugar?”

    “I’ll take my black,” said Gamboni.

    “Thank you, Anna,” said Mrs. Winnaford. “I’ll fix my own.”

    Anna curtsied and stood off to one side.

    Gamboni stood to admire the portrait from afar. He brought the cup to his lips but didn’t drink.

    Anna and Mrs. Winnaford glanced at each other. Mrs. Winnaford stood and walked to the fireplace. She looked up at the portrait, her back to Gamboni.

    “Emma’s beautiful, isn’t she?” asked Mrs. Winnaford.

    “More beautiful than any woman I’ve ever met.”

    “Em. Emma, my dear,” said Mrs. Winnaford, speaking to the portrait. “What do you think of Mr. Gamboni?”

    Using ventriloquism, Mrs. Winnaford threw her voice. “He’s very handsome, Mother.” Winnaford turned around and faced Gamboni.

    Gamboni’s mouth was agape. His eyes were as large as saucers. For a moment, he couldn’t move.

    “What’s the matter, Mr. Gamboni?” asked Mrs. Winnaford. “You haven’t touched your coffee.”

    Reactively, Gamboni chugged the coffee in two gulps. His eyes were locked on the portrait.

    “You don’t look at all well, Mr. Gamboni. Something startle you?”

    “The... The portrait spoke.”

    “Yes, so it seems. But you’re not the only one here with theatrical skills.”

    “Then, it didn’t speak?”

    “Oh, no, it didn’t.” Mrs. Winnaford walked to her chair. “But the illusion made you drink the coffee.”

    “To what end?”

    “Poison,” said Mrs. Winnaford, smiling. “Fast-acting poison.”

    “Poison?”

    “In the coffee, of course.”

    “I tasted nothing unusual.”

    “Our unique blend. Don’t you remember, Mr. Gamboni, or has the poison already fogged your memory?”

    “Madam, I beg of you. The antidote--”

    “There is none.”

    “Surely... There must be...” Gamboni loosened his tie and collar. “I need air.”

    “Don’t fight it. Soon you’ll pass into the hereafter and be with Emma... Then, you’ll be the perfect couple.”

    “But there’s no afterlife,” yelled Gamboni.

    “You’re wrong, Mr. Gamboni. There is an afterlife, and Emma is there. And she’s very much alive.”

    “You crazy old bat.” Gamboni coughed. “Emma’s dead.”

    “Emma lives, I tell you, and I want her to have the perfect companion throughout eternity.”

    Gamboni cleared his throat. “It’s... It’s all a fake, a sham. I’m a fake. All mediums are fakes.”

    “I knew that about you, about all mediums when I scheduled séances.”

    “All? Then I’m not the first?”

    “No... But you’re the ‘Greatest.’ Your card said as much.”

    Gamboni teetered, unable to navigate on his feet. He extended his hand to the mantel for support. “Gamboni is my stage name. I’m Samuel Morris, an actor. I came here to dupe you, to prey on your vulnerability, to trick you. That’s no reason to murder me.”

    “There’s reason, aplenty.”

    “Why then?”

    “You’re handsome, healthy, and full of vitality. Perfect in every way for Emma.”

    Gamboni tried to grab for Mrs. Winnaford. “Damn you.” His knees buckled, and he side-rolled to the floor. His body jerked as his muscles spasmed.

    “Be calm, Mr. Gamboni. It won’t be long now.”

    “No... Don’t... Do... This.” Gamboni’s breathing was labored. He frothed at the mouth. He tried to lift his arm, but it quickly dropped to the floor. He mumbled. “Help... Me. Hel... P--”

    Mrs. Winnaford whispered in his ear. “And you should know, Mr. Gamboni, Emma is far more beautiful in person than any portrait could show.”

    “Is he... Dead?” asked Anna, leaning over him and poking his cheek with her finger.

    “Not yet... But there’s no escaping the poison.” Anna and Mrs. Winnaford stood by Emma’s portrait. “Mr. Gamboni should be joining Emma very soon.”

    As the women conversed, they ignored Gamboni gasping for air.

    “Can ya be sure?” asked Anna.

    “What do you mean?”

    Behind them, Gamboni convulsed and breathed his last breath, but they took no notice of him.

    “How they gonna find each other?” asked Anna.

    “Speak plainly.”

    “Considering how many people have died and are dying every minute, the afterlife must be a crowded place.”

    “Good point, Anna.”

    “Then how will she find--”

    “Not our concern. Emma has eternity to work that out.”

    “Ya plan to keep on, then?” asked Anna.

    “Yes, if we send enough companions to her, she’ll eventually find one.”

    “Abigail, ya agreed.”

    “What’s the count?”

    “Twelve, plus this one. But--”

    Turning away and looking out the window, Mrs. Winnaford ignored Anna’s objection. “Fortunately, our garden is expansive. Under the shade of the lilacs should be an excellent place for Mr. Gamboni. And afterward, a bed of yellow and orange tulips will brighten our spring.”

    “And we’ve got the problem of his manager, Alfred. What’ll we do about him?”

    “Wasn’t he to meet Mr. Gamboni later?”

    “Yes, he was.”

    “Couldn’t you ring and invite him for an early dessert coffee?”

    “Two bodies?”

    “Once the grave is dug, one or two bodies make little difference.”

    Anna rubbed her callused hands together. “Might we ask Zeke to help with the digging again? My hands, ya know.”

    “I suppose so.” Mrs. Winnaford looked out the window and mumbled. “Roots under oaks and maples run wide and deep, but we have many bushes. Room for so many more.” While Mrs. Winnaford rambled on, she nearly fainted and leaned against the wall.

    “Abigail, are ya all right?”

    “I feel a bit funny... My left hand and arm are tingly... Weariness, that’s all... So many to deal with, but Emma must have a companion... She must... She--”
    Mrs. Winnaford stood and looked at Anna; the left side of her face somewhat sagged, and her words were slurred. “Is it Friday? Mr. Gamboni should be arriving soon.”

    Anna rushed to Mrs. Winnaford’s side, took her arm, and guided her to a chair. “Maybe ya ought to sit awhile.”

    Mrs. Winnaford flopped in the chair. Coffee... And yes, Anna, we’ll need coffee for Mr. Gamboni.”

    Anna mopped the perspiration from Mrs. Winnaford’s brow. “How about some tea, ma’am. A hot cup of tea is what ya need.”

    “Tea?” mumbled Mrs. Winnaford.

    “Yes, tea.”

    “I’d like some. Thank you, Anna.”

    “I’ll brew a fresh pot. A unique blend just for ya. It’s smooth as silk to the palate.”

    Mrs. Winnaford’s eyes followed Anna until She left the room. Her head flopped to one side, and she half-smiled. Then, raising her voice, she said, “Anticipation heightens the delight of a good cup of tea all the more, don’t you think, Anna? Remember, not too hot. Too much heat bitters the taste, you know.”

    From the pantry, Anna answered. “I know, ma’am... I know.”

    Anna returned a few minutes later, carrying a silver serving tray with tea, milk, and sugar. “Piping hot, ma’am.”

    “Not too hot... Not too--”

    Anna mixed some milk and sugar with the tea. Then, she handed the cup to Mrs. Winnaford. “No, ma’am. Just the way ya like it.”

    Mrs. Winnaford brought the cup to her lips but didn’t drink.

    Anna’s face contorted. “Yer tea’ll get cold.”

    Winnaford looked past her toward Emma’s portrait. “Mr. Gamboni will arrive soon. Emma... Companion... We must--”

    Anna stood facing Emma’s portrait, her back to Mrs. Winnaford. “Em. Where are you, Emma?” Anna turned to Mrs. Winnaford, who was transfixed on Emma’s portrait.

    “Emma? Emma--”

    “Drink your tea, Abigail... Don’t ya remember Emma’s passing?”

    Mrs. Winnaford took a sip.

    “Another sip... That’s right, said Anna, tilting the cup to Mrs. Winnaford’s lips. “Emma’s not with us anymore; she died four years ago... Remember?”

    Mrs. Winnaford nodded.

    Tipping the cup again, Anna said, “One more sip... Good, good.” Anna returned the empty cup to the serving tray. “Now rest, ma’am.”

    Mrs. Winnaford slumped in her chair. “You’re so good to me, Anna,” said Mrs. Winnaford, sobbing. “But I miss Emma so.”

    “I know, ma’am, but you’ll see her soon enough.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “The tea.”

    “What about the tea?” asked Mrs. Winnaford.

    “It’s another unique blend, ma’am.”

    “You didn’t?”

    “It won’t be long,” said Anna, patting Mrs. Winnaford’s hand.

    “But why?”

    “Too many bodies,” said Anna. “I couldn’t let ya murder another one.”

    “They were all for Emma.”

    “In the beginning, maybe, but after a while, it became more. Something purely evil. I had to stop ya.”

    “But you helped.” Mrs. Winnaford loosened her collar. “The antidote... Top shelf... Kitchen... Hurry.”

    “There’ll be no antidote,” said Anna, shaking her head. “Try to be calm, Abigail. ‘Don’t fight the poison,’ is what ya always said. Ain’t so easily done when yer clinging to life, is it?”

    Mrs. Winnaford’s muscles twitched and spasmed. Her breathing labored. She frothed at the mouth. She tried to lift her good arm, but it flopped to her lap. “Anti... Dote... Help... Me... Hel... P--”
    Her body convulsed one last time and then was still.

    “Hopefully, ya’ll find Emma and the peace ya could never find here.”

    When rain pelted the library’s windows in earnest, a cold chill ran from Anna’s head to her toes. She pondered the bodies of Gamboni and Abigail lying on the floor, and Gamboni’s business agent, Alfred--he knew of the appointment and would ask questions when Gamboni didn’t return. First, Anna went to the kitchen and had a hot cup of tea to settle her nerves. Then she rang the Heritage Park Hotel.

    “Uh... Connect me to Mr. Gamboni’s suite... Yes, I’ll wait... Is this Alfred? Hello, Alfred. I’m Anna, Mrs. Winnaford’s Housekeeper... Oh, yes... They’re doin’ just fine. I was wonderin’ if’n ya’d like to come a bit early and join me in a desert coffee?... Right now, if you’d like. Park the in front and knock... I can’t wait either.”

    ###

    March 11, 1907

    The overnight rain left a coating of moisture on everything and the ground soggy where water accumulated in the gardens’ lower depressions. Clouds still blocked the morning sun when Anna and Ezekiel Moses, the sixty-five-year-old gardener, poked the soil near the lilacs with a shove, looking for the softest ground.

    “Try here, Zeke,” said Anna, pointing to the earth beneath a tall, ancient bush whose arching branches were laden with fragrant blooms.

    “Yes’um, Missy Anna,” said Ezekiel as he sunk his shovel into the dirt. “Easy digin’. Not many roots neither.”

    “Good. Bury them, here.”

    “Shouldn’t we’s bury Madam Winnaford wit her man and youngin, Missy Anna?”

    “No... That old chestnut tree died of the blight--so much for the symbol of the Winnaford’s station, strength, and long life.”

    “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Missy Anna?”

    “Nothing, Zeke. Just thinkin’ out loud.”

    “You’s confusin’ me, Missy Anna.”

    “Don’t be. It’s too much effort to cart her to the back forty, so bury her here. Besides, the body’s just a body, the spirit’s already passed on.”

    “Be less digin’ if’n they’s all goes together.”

    “That don’t seem respectful.”

    “If’n they’s spirits ‘tis gone, they’s bodies won’t minds one bit,” said Ezekiel. “My old bones can’t be diggin’ no three holes today.”

    “All right, Zeke. Ya dig, and I’ll get them ready.”

    “Yes’um, Missy Anna.”

    “When we’re done, plant a bed of yellow and orange tulips. Abigail liked their cheerful colors. They’ll brighten our spring.”

    “Yes’um. They’s will, fer sure.”

    Anna disappeared through the side door of the mansion. When Ezekiel’s shovel struck a stone, he stopped, pitched it aside, and kept digging.

    ###

    March 25, 1908

    Early the following spring, the garden’s trees, and shrubs surpassed themselves by sprouting blossoms everywhere. Beds of crocus, hyacinths, and daffodils pushed their way through the soil to add a splash of color to the otherwise drab ground. Under the bare lilac branches, a massive bed of yellow and orange tulips carpeted the earth with colorful blooms.

    The sun was high in the blue sky when the greenhouse’s door clanged wide open. The sound caused several nearby birds to take flight and a squirrel to scurry up a tree. Then, a fifty-one-year-old, graying, paunchy police detective, Alan Wilson, stepped through the door onto the gravel walkway. Following close behind in handcuffs were Anna and Ezekiel. After them, two uniformed policemen kept pace.

    “What’s the fuss, Missy Anna? Who des men?” asked Zeke.

    “Be quiet, Zeke,” said Anna. “We’re in a bit of trouble.”

    “What’s kinda trouble, Missy Anna? I’s do no one no harm.”

    “I’ll handle this, Zeke. Just be calm.”

    In the service driveway, several police cars and utility trucks crowded into the limited parking space. Milling around, several policemen carried stakes and ropes while a dozen utility workers in white coveralls clutched picks and shovels.

    “All right, men,” said Detective Wilson. “Ms. Hillyar and Mr. Moses will show us where the bodies are buried.”

    “How many, detective?” asked one of the policemen.

    Detective Wilson turned to Anna and Zeke. “Fifteen. Right?”

    Anna nodded while Zeke looked dazed and afraid.

    “Fifteen bodies buried out there. Let’s get to it.”

    The men started to mumble, murmur, and even chuckle among themselves.

    “Show some respect. This is a cemetery, after all.”

    The men entered the side garden gate and stood near the greenhouse for directions and instructions.

    Detective Wilson turned to Anna and Zeke. “Where’s the first one?”

    “I’ll show ya,” said Anna, leading the entourage to a raised bed of daffodils. She stopped and pointed. “There.”

    “How deep?” asked Detective Wilson.

    “We always put three feet of dirt on top of ‘em. No more, no less,” said Anna.

    Detective Wilson gestured to the men. “Stake and rope it off. Be careful to uncover only two and a half feet. Then, we’ll wait for Doc Adams to exhume what’s left of the bodies.” He turned back to Anna and Zeke. “Next one?”

    One by one, Anna identified the graves of the next eleven victims. Then she led them to the massive patch of blooming yellow and orange tulips under the bare branches of the lilac bush. “Here. It’s the last one.”

    “That’s only thirteen,” said Detective Wilson. “A baker’s dozen.”

    “There’s three in one.”

    “Oh, my God, you didn’t?”

    “They didn’t seem to mind,” said Anna.

    “You’ll both get the chair for sure.”

    “Not Zeke. He’s a child. Look at ‘im; he don’t know what this is all about. He’s more concerned about ya digging up his pretty flowers than finding bodies.”

    “Why’d you do it?”

    “Started out Abigail wanting eligible men for Emma’s spirit, but after twelve, she wouldn’t, couldn’t stop killin’, so I... Well... I stopped her.”

    “And Zeke?”

    “Oh, he’d jump off that roof if’n I’d ask ‘im. He don’t know no better, don’t remember from one day to the next other than gardenin’. So I don’t think anyone would send poor ole Zeke to the electric chair.”

    “You could be right, but I’ve got you, dead to rights.”

    “Me? I doubt it. I stopped her lust for murder and her hold on me.”

    “Self-defense?”

    “A powerful woman coercing a defenseless maid to do her bidding. I think someone on the jury will buy that argument.”

    “Who were you defending when you invited Alfred for coffee?”

    “How... How’d ya know that?”

    “Seems Alfred kept an appointment book, and he scribbled an entry to meet you for coffee. He packed up in such a hurry, he left it behind. The hotel’s been safe-keeping it.”

    “Then... What took ya so long?”

    “Gathering evidence. We’re slow but methodical. With what we’ve got, you’ll get what’s comin’ to you, I’m quite sure of that.”

    Policemen led Anna and Zeke to the waiting police cars. Anna sat in the backseat of one, and Zeke in another. Detective Wilson got into a third one.

    Zeke turned to look out the back window for one last glance at his beloved gardens while the police cars drove down the service driveway. Tears welled up in his eyes, not entirely understanding why those strange men were digging up his beautiful flowers.

    The medical examiner’s vehicle passed the exiting patrol cars and screeched to a stop in the service drive. Joshua Adams, MD, exited the passenger’s side, and his assistant got out the driver’s side. Doctor Adam surveyed the activity in the garden. When he approached the policeman at the garden gate, he said with a chuckle, “Better late than never, as they always say. How many you got for us today? One? Two?”

    “Maybe fifteen,” said the policeman.

    Doctor Adams stepped backward in disbelief. “Fifteen? Holy sh*t... Excuse my French, but did you say, ‘fifteen’?”

    “That’s what I’ve heard.”

    The medical examiner turned to his assistant. “Better get more supplies and... And more help, Charles. We’ve got a massacre on our hands.”

    The End
    Last edited by DRayVan; 08-18-2021 at 07:26 AM. Reason: typos

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