“Never in this establishment, Miss Wellington. Our employees are loyal and law-abiding!”
I thought Elizabeth’s head might spin when I suggested perfidy at the Grand Palace Hotel. She was the concierge on duty, and we’d known each other for years. A lovely young Asian woman, her alabaster complexion reddened as she responded. She looked a little like one of the bright red Christmas ornaments nestled in a bowl on the counter between us.
“I heard your daytime and nighttime assistant managers Joe Ryland and Mike Murch cooking up their scheme last night,” I said. “I looked them up immediately afterwards on the computer behind the main desk as soon as I heard your reservationist snoring in the back room.”
All this appeared to be too much for Elizabeth. “Perfidy?” she repeated softly.
I could use a simpler word I assured her, like treachery or deceit, but I never like dumbing down the conversation. “The point is, my dear Elizabeth, your two managers are planning to commit grand larceny and murder.”
An expression passed across Elizabeth’s face that I wasn’t happy to see. A look of patronizing disbelief.
They knew me at the Grand the way everyone knew Eloise at the Plaza. Perhaps precisely the same way—as an amusing trouble maker. I’d been coming every Christmas since the hotel was built in the 1930s. On every visit, I groused about the decorations, that there were too many of them or too few. Occasionally I pulled what I considered a hilarious prank, like when I painted Rudolph’s nose a disgusting chartreuse. I was little more than a child at the time.
The hotel calls itself “Boston lodging suitable for royalty,” and while I’m not royalty—exactly—I am a Boston Brahmin. Personally, I hate the term as it makes me feel like a prize cow, and my large stature does nothing to dispel that image. My beloved father, however, insisted I embrace my position and use it to do good in the world. He didn’t seem to care that people referred to him as Beef Wellington behind his back. I certainly hoped they weren’t calling me that.
Elizabeth snapped me to attention. “Is this one of your practical jokes, Miss Wellington?”
“I assure you it is not.”
Elizabeth was starting to annoy me.
“I’m simply telling you something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Pink spots appeared on Elizabeth’s cheeks. “If you are not pleased with the service we provide, I will do everything I can to make your stay completely satisfactory.”
“Oh, good grief, you young people can be so literal. You cater to my every wish. I have far too much space in the Presidential Suite, and I only take it so I can play the piano at all hours.”
She gave me a puzzled look.
Perhaps I should text her. Maybe that would help her focus.
“This is not about me. It’s about the fact that someone—a guest here—is in danger for her life.”
Elizabeth leaned in close to me. “Let’s talk somewhere . . . more private,” she said. “Give me a moment. “I have all day. I’m not certain the same can be said for the intended victim.”
Elizabeth spoke to the young woman beside her. The woman looked to be about twelve, but then everyone looked about twelve these days. It only mattered when they claimed to be one of my doctors.
Elizabeth led me to a small room behind the concierge desk. It was smaller than the coat closet in the Presidential Suite, but, of course, the space itself was not the issue.
“Is this room soundproofed?” I asked.
Elizabeth stared at me. “I wouldn’t think so.”
“I’m not paranoid, just concerned about the traffic flow outside this door. Where is the day manager?”
Elizabeth glanced at her watch. “He is probably in the Flower Garden restaurant checking on the service. There have been a few complaints.”
“I see. Perhaps if the managers are busy planning a murder, a few things like customer service might get pushed aside.”
“Really, Miss Wellington!”
“Oh, please, sit back down. I believe we can handle this situation. We are two intelligent women, and I have my friend here.” I took my Remington derringer out of my Gucci handbag and thought Elizabeth might faint.
“I haven’t fired this gun in fifty years,” I said, “but I still know how.” “Would you . . .would you mind putting that away?” she asked.
“Certainly, my dear.” I slipped it back into my purse. “I only wanted you to know I’m prepared for anything that might happen, and I have my assistant Ruth Fitzhugh staying with me in the hotel. She’ll do whatever I ask of her.”
Elizabeth started to nod like a bobble head. I resisted the urge to grab her chin and make her stop.
“Here’s what I heard.”
Elizabeth’s head miraculously stilled.
“It was two am. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d go to the fitness center for a brief workout. The halls are not particularly well-lit at night, some ridiculous form of economizing I’m sure. You’ll get sued if one of your older insomniacs like me, breaks a hip in the dark—that much I can tell you. Before I got to the center on the fourth floor, I heard men whispering near room 462. I remained in the shadows, and they never knew I was there. Unfortunately, it also meant I couldn’t see them clearly.”
Elizabeth started to do that bobbing thing again, and I wondered if she had a seizure disorder.
“They were talking like school boys about to pull off some childish caper. Then disturbing words crept in, like a death made to look accidental and snatching jewelry like candy.”
“Did they mention the name of the intended victim?” she asked.
“It was a ‘she’—that much I got. ‘The old bird won’t know what hit her.’”
As I said those words I had a most uncomfortable feeling, like the sensation Scrooge had when the ghost of Christmas Future pointed in the direction of a grave. “You do have other old birds staying in this hotel besides me, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said and then caught herself. “You are not an old bird, Miss Wellington—I didn’t mean to imply that.”
“Of course I am, but I’ve seen plenty of white heads around the place. Who else but young techies and old birds could afford these exorbitant prices?” I waved off Elizabeth’s protest. “They made reference to the fact that her jewels would disappear at the time of her unfortunate death.”
Once more I felt an unpleasant tingle and couldn’t help but finger the emerald and ruby necklace my father had given me on my sixteenth birthday.
“Are you all right, Miss Wellington? Would you like a glass of water?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’m quite fine. I simply don’t want to ignore the obvious. I’m of a certain age, clearly with jewelry worth stealing.”
“I’ve always encouraged you to leave it in our safe.”
“I like to have my things near me,” I said. “Are there others like me—wealthy women who are here alone at the Grand?”
“I’d have to check,” Elizabeth said. “I really think we must get you a bodyguard while I investigate this matter.”
“I have my bodyguard,” I said, motioning to the gun in my purse. “And I have Ruth, quite a competent woman who seems addicted to exercise and self-defense courses.”
Elizabeth looked unhappy. “Did these two men say when the murder would take place?”
“Christmas night, after everyone might have had a little too much to drink. That gives us twenty-four hours to save a life, possibly my own.”
I smiled but Elizabeth did not.
“You must realize this is not the first time I’v been threatened with bodily harm, nor I fear will it be the last. There was an attempted kidnapping right about the time the poor Lindberg child was taken. My father subverted that one, and the two men were apprehended. Then, when I was off at Radcliffe, I was very nearly accosted by a drunk Harvard lad who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I handled that one.”
Elizabeth was staring at me wide-eyed.
“I could go on, but I won’t,” I said.
In reality, going on would have meant inventing more stories of danger, and I didn’t have the energy for that.
“Suffice it to say that when you are a woman with money and prestige, men often want you for their own nefarious purposes. It’s one reason I’ve remained happily single all my life. Liaisons are quite enough for me—temporary and pleasurable.”
“I really must take this to higher management,” she said, “and the police.”
“That will only drive our two crooks underground.”
Elizabeth looked stretched to her limit, and I took pity on her.
“Perhaps I’ve exaggerated the situation, and it was nothing more than idle talk. See what you can find out, my dear, about these two men and come to my suite around five this afternoon. Here, I’ll leave this with you—you can say you found it for me.”
I pulled off one of my clip-on emerald earrings and handed it over. No pierced ears for me. No pierced anything—what a barbaric idea.
Elizabeth took the earring, put it in an envelope and stuffed it in her pocket.
“We’ll put our heads together over a glass of wine and decide what to do next,” I said.
That’s how we left it.
I had a few hours to kill—an unfortunate choice of words. I sidled through the lobby, pretending to take an interest in the fussy decorations. Every available space was draped in greenery. I might as well have been in the Amazon.
I entered the Flower Garden in time for tea, and I have to admit that is one portion of the Grand Palace Hotel that truly is exquisite. Orchids were interspersed with poinsettias along the walls. Three Christmas trees were clustered in the center of the room.
I was seated immediately.
I looked around for Joe Ryland. Elizabeth had described him as a small, wiry man, always impeccably dressed. I saw such a man wandering near the periphery of the dining room and waved him over.
“Excuse me,” I said.,“but there seems to be a smudge on my water glass. Are you a waiter?”
“Joseph Ryland at your service. I’m a manager, but I can take care of that for you.” He took the glass and motioned my waiter to bring me another. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Miss Wellington?”
“Ah, you know my name.”
“Of course,” he said. “You are one of our most distinguished guests.”
“One of your oldest—is that what you meant?”
“Of course not.”
Now I had Ryland on the defensive, right where I wanted him.
“Perhaps you can help me. It seems I’ve lost one of my earrings,” I said, patting my ear. “Do you have a hotel detective or someone who might look for it? I’d offer a generous reward.”
“I’ll take care of it personally. Do you mind if I examine the other one?”
I handed it to him. “You may hold onto it for now. One earring is of little value.”
“Yes, of course.”
He licked his lips. To keep from drooling over it? I saw his eyes stray to my necklace.
“The necklace and earrings are part of a set, given to me by my father.”
“Exquisite,” he said.
“People always say I should lock them away, but I say, what good is jewelry if you don’t wear it? I keep it by my bedside at night. It’s such a comfort to me, almost as if my father is still watching over me.”
“Of course,” said Joe. “You are quite sure the missing earring is not in your suite?”
“We’ll locate it, I promise. If you don’t mind I’ll keep this, so the staff will know what to look for.”
“Excellent.” I was certain I wouldn’t see that earring again until Joe and his co-conspirator Mike were arrested for my attempted murder.
I had that almost right.
I spent the next hours eating sweets I didn’t want and drinking barely consumable tea. Tea bags, no less. I really should consider staying home next Christmas. I searched the dining room for single women like me—other wealthy old birds. I saw only two. One was considerably younger—in her seventies. And the other could have been my doppelgänger. No harm in meeting them both.
I walked to the first woman and greeted her like a long lost friend.
“Oh, I apologize,” I said. “You look so like my dear friend Elma. I’m sorry for interrupting your tea.”
“You needn’t apologize. It’s a lovely tea, don’t you think? Are you staying in the hotel?”
This led to a brief conversation. It seemed the woman in question had a husband who was out doing some last minute Christmas shopping.
The other woman was very much alone and someone I thought I knew from years past. She looked so old and drawn I thought perhaps I was mistaken. She, however, recognized me.
“Florence, is that you? What a surprise. Are you with anyone? Please join me.”
I sat down but declined more tea. “Maude Merriwether. I haven’t seen you, in what, ten years?”
“More like twenty.”
“Are you also alone in the hotel this Christmas?” I asked.
“Very much so. My own decision. The children invited me of course, but frankly I felt like a quiet holiday this year. And you?”
“Same sentiment but no children.”
“You never married, did you, Florence? I’ve often thought that was a wise decision. Connections so often bring heartache.”
“I hope that’s not a personal statement.”
“Those problems are past, not worth dwelling on. It was the husband of one of my granddaughters who insisted I come here. He said it would let me celebrate Christmas on my own terms. His thoughtfulness surprised me. I’d always seen him as a greedy man and assumed he’d married my granddaughter in hopes of a hefty inheritance.”
I nodded and tried to appear interested in Maude’s petty family entanglements.
“You have an unencumbered life, Flo, and I envy you that.”
“If you don’t have plans for Christmas, perhaps we could share a meal,” I said.
“I’d love that. I’m in room 462, the only thing they had available, but it’s enough for one.”
Room 462. The room where I heard the two men whispering.
“I’m in the Presidential Suite. My assistant Ruth is staying with me, but we have plenty of room. Why don’t you come Christmas Day and stay over?”
I was feeling desperate to protect Maude from what might be her intended fate.
She looked at me oddly. “Dear Florence, you appear so intent on cheering me up. Have any of my relatives been in touch with you?”
“They’ve seemed quite concerned about my mental state. That same grandson I mentioned insisted I see a shrink he knew. The man did little to help me other than giving me pills and podcasts to get me to sleep. He made me a special podcast to be used Christmas night, saying it was a difficult time for many people. I think they fear I might jump off a building. Young people don’t understand that at some point life loses its luster. Has it done that for you?”
“No, I assure you it has not. I find a new adventure every day. Perhaps over the next twenty-four hours, you and I might even save a life.”
Maude smiled. “You always had such a flair for the dramatic. I remember that from Radcliffe.”
“How did you choose the Grand for your holiday?” I asked.
“My grandson-in-law knows one of the managers. He assured me the man would take care of me—a Mike something.”
I kept my face in a fixed smile. “Ah. Well. I’ll expect to see you tomorrow afternoon around four. We’ll make merry.”
“I may not be good company, Flo.”
“I shall be enough good enough company for both of us. I promise we’ll have a lively time. By the way did you bring any jewelry on this trip?”
“What a strange question! You haven’t become a jewel thief in your old age, have you? I really wouldn’t put anything past you.” She laughed—a lovely youthful musical sound.
“No. I just thought it might be fun to reminisce over old pieces. I know mine have stories to tell.”
“You have become delightfully eccentric, Flo, but actually, I think you always were. I’ll bring them with me tomorrow afternoon, if that’s what you’re suggesting, and we’ll share our stories.”
* * * * *
I arrived at my suite, thoroughly content with myself. I might be old but my brain seemed to be firing on all four cylinders. Or was it six these days? Whatever.
Ruth met me at the door. “Where have you been? You said you’d be gone half an hour and it’s been five hours, at least.”
“You do worry too much, my dear. It’s not good for you at your age.”
“I’m forty-two years old, half your age, so I think I can worry about you if I wish.”
“People here believe I’m 93. I prefer the authority and maturity those extra years give me—not to mention the shock on people’s faces to see me mobile and alert.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Ruth said. “Tea?”
“No. Something stronger.”
As Ruth and I sat drinking a very expensive Scotch, I told her what I was up to. She did not interrupt once. Ruth had lasted fifteen years as my assistant because she knew never to interrupt me and rarely to give me advice.
Elizabeth knocked on the door when I’d finished.
“You’re precisely on time,” I said. ”I like that. Scotch?”
“Unfortunately, I’m still on duty.”
“Are you working tomorrow?” I asked.
“I am, a double shift, filling in for people who want to spend Christmas with their families. I’m Buddhist, and Christmas is just another day for me.” She looked at my expectant face. “I do have information about Mr. Ryland and Mr. Murch.”
“That would be Joe and Mike—the men I told you about, Ruth.”
“They are both relatively new hires, within the last six months.”
“I see. And have there been any robberies, discreetly hushed up, within that period of time?”
“Yes. One older woman lost a brooch and another a ring. Management was quick to make amends, and neither woman filed a complaint. A member of the housekeeping staff was fired, but I knew Marie. She was an honest worker.”
“No . . how shall I put it . . . no untimely deaths?”
“Nothing of that sort, I’m glad to say, Miss Wellington. Are you certain you heard the conversation clearly?”
“Despite my age, my hearing has remained acute. I heard what I told you.”
“I meant no offense. I just thought we should be very certain about the current risk. If, as you say, your life is being threatened, I really must report this to upper management and notify the police.”
I sighed heavily. “I have a far better plan.”
Elizabeth and Ruth were silent as I spoke.
“I’m quite sure the real target is Maude Merriwether. She’s alone and far more vulnerable than I. She’ll be joining us tomorrow with her jewels and staying over. It’s the only way I could think to protect her. Your job, Elizabeth, will be to let that information be known once I have Maude safely in the suite, say around five or so.”
Elizabeth sat shaking her head.
Ruth put a hand on her arm. “Florence hired me fifteen years ago after she saw me in the Olympics biathlon. I’m an excellent shot obviously, and I’ve stayed in training since then. Both women will be safe here.”
“I’ll be happy to have the police on speed dial,” I said, “once we catch our crooks. But they must not be involved before then. If you call them in, nothing will happen. There will be an unnecessary scandal, and you might very well lose your job.”
Elizabeth left without making eye contact.
Ruth and I slept soundly that night and celebrated Christmas the next morning with Mimosas and eggs benedict. We opened silk stockings we’d filled for one another.
How I got through the next eight hours until Maude arrived I’m sure I don’t know. I went to the fitness center for an hour, took a long bath with bath salts Ruth had ordered from France, wandered the lobby of the hotel, which was bustling with families eager for brunch in the Flower Garden, and gave Maude a call to make sure she was still coming at four.
“Of course, Florence, I’m looking forward to it.”
I played the piano until Ruth begged me to stop, and then sat, twiddling my thumbs.
“Can’t you read a book?” Ruth asked. “I have an exceptionally good thriller I’ve just finished.”
“I’m not into fiction,” I said, “and don’t shake your head again—I’m quite tired of that behavior.”
“Curmudgeon,” Ruth said, but she held her head steady. She knew which side her bread was buttered on.
The clock on the mantle chimed four. Maude arrived five minutes later with a lovely brocade overnight bag in one hand and a wrapped present in the other.
“Oh, dear,” I said. “I didn’t think of getting you a present.”
“Lifting my spirits is enough present,” Maude said pleasantly. “But the gift isn’t for you, it’s for Ruth. I’m sure she didn’t bargain on a third person in this suite.”
“It’s a delight to have you, Ms. Merriwether,” Ruth said. “You’ll have the room next to Miss Wellington, and I will have the adjoining room on the other side of you. All very snug.”
“Please, you must call me Maude.” With that she handed Ruth an elegantly wrapped package. “I took the liberty of asking in the shop downstairs if they knew you and what size you might wear.”
Ruth opened the present. Inside was a light white jacket. “Perfect for my workouts,” Ruth said.
Did I feel a ping of jealousy? I’d never bought Ruth clothes, nor had I the least idea what size she might be. They looked quite chummy standing there, and Maude could never be accused of being a curmudgeon.
I clapped my hands. “Enough of this. Let’s get on with our plans.”
We ordered room service and discussed what the evening might bring. Maude was silent until I reached the part about Mike Murch.
“He came to my room earlier this afternoon,” she said. “He seemed like a charming young man, and he said he knew my grandson.”
“Your grandson-in-law,” I corrected.
“Yes, but really, Florence, I simply can’t believe Mr. Murch would mean to harm me. He was very interested about my plans for tonight.”
“I’m afraid, Maude, you have always been too trusting. Mike Murch was supposed to come on duty at eight, so what was he doing at your room this afternoon?”
Maude looked miffed. “You’ve always been a suspicious person.”
“And you were not suspicious of your husband’s secretary. That led to your divorce, I believe.”
Even I knew that was a low blow.
Maude looked stricken.
Now I felt another unpleasant feeling—shame perhaps.
“Apologize,” Ruth said under her breath. “Now.”
I hesitated. Apologizing was not in my repertoire. Still, Maude did look upset, and she’d come to us hoping to be cheered up.
“I’m sorry, Maude. I’m used to speaking my mind. I’ve lived alone too long.”
Maude turned to me. “What you said is true. People often take advantage of me.”
“And I have always been too crusty,” I said. “People steer clear of me.”
It was a fact, but I wasn’t sure I minded it.
After dinner, Ruth made quite a show of leaving to visit her family, proclaiming loudly in the lobby she wouldn’t be returning until the following night. She even asked the day manager Joe to order her a cab.
Elizabeth had told her the best reentry route—through the kitchen where she wouldn’t encounter anyone, and by anyone we meant Ryland or Murch. Ruth returned wearing a food service uniform and offered us a Bûche de Noël, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
We dimmed the lights shortly after ten, went to our respective rooms, and locked our doors. It was obvious Mike and Joe would have master keys, and I didn’t want anything to seem amiss.
What I hadn’t imagined was that Maude might leave the suite of her own accord, but that is precisely what she did at midnight.
Ruth and I both heard her bedroom door open and close. We met in her room to discover it empty. By the time we made it to the foyer, she was gone, and the massive front door to the suite was closed.
No one was in the hallway outside the suite, and there was no sign of a struggle.
“Does your friend sleep walk?” Ruth asked.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “She’s really more of an acquaintance.”
Ruth gave me a look. “Whatever you wish to call her, she’s gone. You have your derringer?”
“Of course,” I said.
“And your cell phone?”
“What do you take me for? I have my gun, my cell phone, and I’m wearing my workout shoes. Stop wasting time.”
“We’ll split up, but text me your location every five minutes,” Ruth said. “I’ll do the same.”
There weren’t many rooms on our floor that weren’t connected to the suite. I headed left. Ruth went right.
I listened, heard nothing, and walked to the spiral staircase at the end of the hall.
I stopped when I saw Maude hanging over the marble bannister with what looked like a clear drop down three floors. I could see her face, eyes closed and a sickeningly serene smile on her lips. Was she asleep? She seemed to be content hanging there—one leg over and the other still on the steps. I texted Ruth and then approached her cautiously.
I stopped two feet above her when I heard a whisper. It was more like a hiss. Then I saw her ear buds. One in and one out. I rushed to her, grabbed her waist and yanked the ear bud out of her left ear. She barely reacted, opening her eyes and smiling at me as if she were drunk.
“Almost over,” she whispered. “You’ve come to join me? We could fly together to eternity.”
I held her tight and shushed her. Then I listened to the podcast on her iPhone.
“Feel the euphoria, Maude. Deep sleep and weightlessness. Climb to the other side. Look up, not down. See the sky? Let go. Fly to the sky.”
Ruth was at my side. Together we took the semiconscious Maude to our rooms. We sat her on the sofa, rubbed her hands, and used my old smelling salts to rouse her. Once she came round we realized our suite had been ransacked.
Maude’s eyes flew open.
“What are you doing to me? Are you trying to kill me?”
“Save you,” I said.
“Save me? From what? I was having the most delightful dream. Everything was going to be all right.”
Ruth brought her a cup of coffee, and I sat with her as she drank it. Ruth checked the apartment. The safe was open, so the men had been in our rooms. But we’d put none of our jewels in the safe. They were in a false bottom of Ruth’s suitcase tucked in the back of her closet.
“Everything is fine,” Ruth said.
“Not fine at all, we didn’t catch our thieves,” I said.
Elizabeth burst in with perfect timing. Two of Boston’s finest were with her. “Oh, thank God. We saw the men leave your suite, and then when we couldn’t find you—well, I thought the worst might have happened. Are the three of you all right?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Thank you, Elizabeth for disobeying me about the police.”
Bit by bit Maude told her story. It appeared that her grandson-in-law had masterminded the whole thing, from her stay at the hotel to the pills and podcast that were meant to lead to her suicide.
Maude, Ruth, and I went downstairs with the police officers to see Joe and Mike before they were removed to the city jail.
It didn’t take much to get them bickering. I simply mentioned the number of years they would each get for attempted murder and armed robbery. My obsession with Law and Order reruns was helpful that night. I suggested they turn state’s evidence and identify the real culprit.
Murch jumped at the chance. He fingered Maude’s grandson Jeffrey Jones as the one who had contacted him. They’d been friends since high school. Jones promised him Maude would kill herself, and all he and Ryland had to do was gather up the jewels.
The police picked up Jones at his home.
A distraught Leslie Merriwether Jones called Maude an hour later. When she was assured her grandmother was fine, she acknowledged that she’d long suspected Jeffrey was more interested in her money than in her.
All’s well that ends well.
Actually, for Maude and me, it was more of a beginning. She was in need of adventures and I was in need of a friend. We had the money to do precisely what we wanted, whether that was travel, serve as undercover hotel critics, or solve crimes. Ruth was happy to be our sidekick.
As it turned out murder, preventing it that is, proved to be our forte. After all, how much can you actually fear in your eighties? We’d already had a good run, and more was simply gravy.
End of the World: Victoria’s Playground
Andrew brought only his computer and a rucksack of island clothes.
“Casual dress,” the brochure said, “but serious work.” He’d tapped into it twenty times before deciding to go. War of the Worlds: A Summer Camp for End-of-the-World New Age Fiction Writers. Offered by Last World Resorts. He’d never heard of Victoria’s Playground, an island off the coast of Cape Cod, but he wasn’t a geography buff or a sailing enthusiast.
Was it the brochure that enticed him? Someone recognizing his work and urging him to apply? He sent in his sample of writing, was accepted, and mailed the check. Five thousand dollars.
He could only hope it would be worth the time and money. Maybe he wouldn’t learn a lot. He already knew a lot, but it couldn’t hurt to have published writers critique his work. With luck he’d find an agent. An idyllic setting might inspire him. The camp guides, as they were called, were of the caliber of Nevil Shute according to the brochure.
Nevil Shute’s On the Beach was Andrew’s favorite bone-chilling book as a kid. If he could learn to write like that man, it would be worth the five thousand dollars and a whole lot more.
Yes. It might be the perfect jump start for a new life. His life had stalled a bit. Nothing major. He had a beautiful wife. Children who were doing well. His work as an illustrator was fine, but something was missing. Too bad he didn’t want to write children’s stories. Too bad the stories he wanted to write were full of adult drama and disaster. Ah well.
He took the bus from Boston to Woods Hole. Near the ferry that took passengers to Martha’s Vineyard, he saw a smaller chartered boat with a sign for Victoria’s Playground. Beside it stood two dozen individuals, ranging in age from twenty to eighty, waiting for a steward to motion them on board.
It was a twenty minute trip, just beyond the first of the privately-owned Elizabeth Islands. Victoria’s Playground appeared almost devoid of vegetation, strikingly different from the islands surrounding it.
Andrew noticed a bit of give as he stepped off the boat onto dry land.
“What’s this?” he asked the captain.
The captain shrugged and remained silent.
The director of the camp jogged down the path to greet the new arrivals. He had the look of a modern day Robinson Crusoe. Andrew suspected this was for dramatic effect—shaggy red hair, unkempt beard but wearing new Dockers and Birkenstock sandals. As he ran toward the boat, Andy noticed a bounce, bounce, bounce of the ground beneath his feet.
After the enthusiastic, booze-enhanced greetings from the Camp leader—“Call me Bill”, Andrew asked about the peculiar sea sick feeling he was having on land.
“Oh that. That’s nothing. Drink a little rum and you won’t notice it.”
“No, really, I want to know what it is.”
“Okay, Okay.” Bill leaned his shaggy head into Andy’s face. Andrew stepped back. The alcohol was overwhelming. “It’s just, well, how shall I put it? This is a floating island. A lot cheaper and more moveable.”
“You’re telling me we’re on a giant raft?”
“Hey man, not so loud. We call it a floating paradise. Everything you need in 20,000 square feet. It’s huge, man. You remember the weight requirements. Remember that? How much did you weigh? How much did your luggage weigh? Well, now you can understand why. Keep it to yourself, okay? Our little secret. I’ll have a few perks for you if you can do that. In an hour you won’t know or care that you’re on a giant raft. You’ll be feeling no pain.”
Andy felt a lot of pain and it wasn’t from the gentle sway of the island. Five thousand dollars for some pickled camp leader and life on a giant raft? He looked at the group around him. No one seemed to have heard the exchange.
“We’re on a fucking raft,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Bill yanked him out of line. “We always have one—a real jokester this guy.”
Andrew shook him off. “Don’t ever touch me again,” he said. “Just give me back my $5000 and let me get back on the boat.”
“No can do,” the director said. “If it were up to me sure. I’d have you off the island in a minute.” He smiled. “You can leave. You just can’t get your money back. My wife owns the place and she doesn’t part with her money. Settle down, man. Have a few drinks. Play a little. Know what I mean? What happens on Victoria’s Playground, stay’s on Victoria’s Playground.”
Andrew got his drift and hauled off to flatten him when a woman intervened. Not Bill’s wife but a fellow participant. She took Andrew’s fist, unfolded his fingers and shook his hand. “Monica,” she said. “Ignore Bill. He makes a lot more sense when he isn’t soused. This is my third trip. Honestly, I learn a lot every time I come.”
Andrew stepped back. “Really? You know this guy?”
She nodded. She was a pretty girl. He walked beside her and noticed she had a slight limp.
“You write end-of-the-world-new-age fiction?” he asked.
“I try to. I read more of it than I write. It’s saved my life really.” She rubbed at an ugly scar visible just below her very short shorts. “When things get bad or I feel sorry for myself I pick up a good book about the end of the world and my problems seem so trivial.” She studied him in a slightly provocative way. “You write, don’t you?”
“Why do you write?” she asked.
“That’s a complicated question,” he said. “I love the thrill of the chase. I like people who survive against all odds. I can invent the future, not just live in the present.”
“You don’t like living in the present?” she asked.
“No, no, I like the present. Sometimes I just want a little more . . . excitement.”
“I know what you mean.” She placed a hand on his shoulder and ran her fingers lightly down his arm.
He shrugged away from her and briefly wondered if Maria was one of the perks Bill was talking about. “I’m happily married,” he said.
“Lucky man,” she responded.
They walked side by side to the bunkhouse where the group would stay. No separation of the sexes, Andy noted, but locks on every private room. The rooms themselves were spare. A double bed, a wooden desk, a small book case, and a light.
“Get yourselves settled,” Bill said to the group. “Choose any room you like. We have security on site but make sure you lock your rooms, take the keys. We know your writing is precious, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. Bathrooms are down the hall. Knock before you enter since we’re coed. The mess hall is across the way. We’ll have lunch in an hour and start the classes this afternoon.”
Bill’s speech was slurred enough for people to ask him to repeat what he’d just said. Andrew had had enough. He headed for a room upstairs, in the corner, as far away from everyone as he could get. Maria followed him.
“Do you mind if I take the room next to yours?” she asked.
Andy hesitated, the key in his hand, the door open.
“I won’t bother you, I promise,” Maria said. “I get it. You’re a happily-married man. I’d just feel secure with you on one side.”
Andy looked at her. “Are you afraid of someone here?”
Maria sighed. “You never know what might happen. A new group of people I don’t know. On an island. You just never know.”
Andrew nodded at her. “Sure,” he said.
He turned his attention to his room and his work. He didn’t need much, but this place was spartan. They hadn’t spent a lot of his $5000 on accommodations, that was clear. He Skyped his wife and filled her in on most of what was going on. He left Maria out of the picture. Not that his wife would get jealous. She trusted him, but there was no reason to worry her.
Lunch was a lot like the accommodations. Cheap food, most of it unhealthy. Hot dogs, potato chips, canned peaches and store-bought cookies. He heard a few disgruntled murmurs from other participants.
So did Bill.
“Welcome,” Bill proclaimed. “The lunch is simple. We want you to keep a clear head for your writing. Tonight we will have a deprivation dinner. Yeah, you heard me right. What would you be eating if you were alive after the war of the worlds? You’ll see tonight.”
Several people groaned.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Bill said waving his arms haphazardly. “We need a little atmosphere to inspire good writing. We’ll have a cash bar open at four. You won’t have to feel the pain.”
People were done eating in fifteen minutes. When it was apparent paper plates were being thrown in the trash, Bill introduced his wife Jean Louise to the group.
She looked vaguely familiar to Andrew. Ah yes, she was an author he’d read as a child. He’d seen her picture on the jacket flaps. She did a series for young adults, After the Apocalypse. They became repetitive, and when he finished the third book he was done with them.
She’d actually inspired him to try his own hand at writing. He was certain he could write a more interesting series if he put his mind to it. Jean Louise had aged well. She had to be sixty but she didn’t look it. Plastic surgery he suspected.
“Jean Louise is the brains behind this organization,” Bill said. “She’s designed the writing exercises and hired the writing staff who will review your work. Everyone you meet is a published author, so your personal review tomorrow will be done by people who know what they’re talking about.
Jean Louise took over. “Each of you will be given—“ she glanced at Bill.
“A bag of tricks,” Bill said.
“A bag of tricks, like Halloween,” she giggled. “See what you have in your bag. One—” she searched for the word.
“One gadget, gizmo,” Bill took over. “Write how you might use it to save yourself if you were the sole survivor of World War III. At two, you’ll come back here, meet at the table with your name on it and share stories. Then we’ll build on your ideas.”
“What fun,” Jean Louise said with another giggle and a clap of enthusiasm.
Andy didn’t think she sounded drunk, more like she’d lost it. A touch of early dementia, too much acid in her youth? Who knew?
He took his bag and headed for his room. Maria was at his heels. She was examining her object—an empty can of Spam. “So what do I do with this? What did you get?”
“I’m going to check mine out in the room,” Andrew said.
“Mind if we work together? I hate working alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Andy said. “I work alone. I think alone. I write alone. This is serious business for me.”
Maria put one hand on her hip. “I wasn’t implying a thing, you know. What, you think you’re god’s gift to women with your muscles and your curly brown hair? You’re not.”
She flounced off. Then abruptly she turned around and marched back to him. “You think serious work gets done here? Boy, are you a sucker!”
He was already beginning to think she was right. Here he was on a floating raft with one soused director, another one who had apparently lost her marbles, and Maria, who shared some similarities with a jelly fish. Ready to cling and sting.
He sighed deeply.
A young man appeared at his side. Shaved head, a single earring, and a carefully tended beard. “Hey, man. Name’s Geoff. I see you’ve met Maria and already ticked her off. She’s a regular here, so I’m told. People say to stay away from her, but maybe it’s too late for that.”
“ It may be. She’s in the room next to mine.”
“Keep your door locked,” Goeff said with a smile.
“You’ve been here before?”
Goeff shook his head. “Not really. I got sick before last year’s session, so they bumped me to this one. I did a lot of corresponding with a friend who did go.”
“And you came anyway?” Andy said.
“It’s not that bad. At least I don’t think it is. Sad about my friend though. He was having a pretty good time. ‘Course if you gave him enough booze, he’d have a good time wherever he went. He got in pretty deep with Maria and had a time getting out. That’s why I know about her. Then something happened. He stopped communicating. I thought I must have ticked him off with too many questions.”
“Nope. He fell off the end of a pier and drowned. Drunk. They didn’t find him until the next morning.”
“Wow,” That was all Andrew could manage. “I’m sorry.”
They split up at the stairs to the second floor. Geoff’s room was down the hall, first level. Andrew headed cautiously to his, worried Maria would be parked outside. Okay, so he’d met one normal person, one strange person and worrisome directors. He’d give it a chance.
He opened his door to find Maria inside.
She was hunched over his computer.
“What the hell?”
“Don’t get your boxers in a bunch. I wanted to apologize. I thought I’d leave a note on your computer. You may have thought you locked your door but you didn’t.”
“I did lock the door. Now get the hell out of here.”
Maria stood, walked out the door and left it open. “A child of five could pick these locks,” she said.
Andrew slammed it shut, stuck a chair underneath the handle of the door and emailed his wife. He told her everything that was happening. Better to talk by email he told her because it wasn’t clear who might be listening.
His wife responded to the long diatribe. Can you get another room, she emailed? Can you get your money back and come home?
No and no. I’ll handle it. But if I’m washed off some pier, don’t believe it. Things are screwy around here.
Don’t scare me, she wrote back. Come home.
This wasn’t good. He’d managed to frighten his wife half to death.
It’s okay, he wrote. I’ll use all this in my next story. Don’t worry about me. We’ll stay in touch. If anything gets dicey I’ll get out of here.
He got off his email and looked for Maria’s letter of apology. No such letter. But someone, Maria, had been reading his stories. He knew because she’d left them open on the screen.
Damn. Settle down.
He opened his paper bag and found a melted screw driver. Apparently the end of the world had been hot and furious. The handle was charred and the metal tip was now a mangled piece with a sharp tip.
Andy sat down and wrote. He finished five minutes before the two o’clock deadline. He took his computer to the mess hall—it would never leave his side for the rest of the trip.
Geoff waved him over. “You’re at my table. Meet Ellie, Jayne, and Alex. This is Andrew.” Everyone nodded agreeably. Andy glanced around. No sign of Maria. Thank God. Bill also seemed to be out of sight, hopefully sleeping it off.
Jean Louise stood in the center of the room with a handheld microphone and read from a typed script. “You’ll read your stories and then combine them into a single post-apocalyptic short story. When you’re ready, one of our staff will review the group project and help you perfect it. Designate your best reader to read to share it with the participants. The winning group will get a prize.”
“What?” Andrew muttered under his breath. “Are we in grammar school?”
“It’s gonna be fun,” Geoff said. “Forget the stupid prize.’
Despite everything about this despicable camp, Andy discovered the assignment was fun. Each participant read his piece. Andrew’s had his protagonist use the screwdriver to kill the wounded alien, who had brought disaster on the world and was particularly sensitive to burnt metal. They took that as their centerpiece. Geoff’s broken eye glass became the way they started a fire and cooked the alien’s flesh. The others chipped in their paragraphs about a dried dog turd, half an Iphone, and a shoe lace.
“Let’s take a fifteen minute break,” Geoff said, “and let the creative juices flow before we try to write our story. I’ll return these items to Jean Louise. I know she won’t want to lose any of them.”
“If she remembers what they were for in the first place,” Andy said.
As it turned out the group write was remarkably easy. Their 5000 word short story had them laughing hysterically. The end of the world didn’t have to be grim, or so they thought.
Other groups in the room were struggling to finish on time, and no one was smiling. A few people looked over in disgust, forcing Jean Louise to come to Andrew’s table. “I hope you are taking your assignment seriously,” she said. This time she didn’t giggle.
“Absolutely,” Andy replied. “No one said the writing couldn’t be a spoof, and that’s what ours turned out to be.” Kind of like this whole week. He didn’t say those words out loud, but Jean Louise got the message.
“Why don’t we speak after dinner,” she said to him. “I’m not certain you have the right frame of mind for our work.”
“I’m sure I don’t. Does that mean I can get my money back?”
This time she did giggle. “You are a funny man. Of course not, but I would like you to get the best out of this week. And I think that might take an attitude adjustment.” She swished away in her retro hippy skirt and plastic lei, stopping at tables where she was enthusiastically greeted.
A member of the writing staff came over and introduced himself. “I’m Dom Ricardo,” he said with an accent.
“I know you,” Ellie exclaimed. “You write serials, don’t you, for the Spanish ‘End of World’ night time soap?”
Ricardo clicked his heels. “At your service. I’m flattered you know my work. You speak Spanish?”
“My boyfriend does. We watch you every night. Well, not you, but what you write.”
“Gracias. May I see what you have written?” Ricardo read the story and guffawed as he went along. “Perfecto. You should win if there is justice in this world or the one that comes after disaster.”
Andrew smiled. Okay, he had a table of sane participants and one sane reader. Hopefully, Ricardo or someone like him would read his first fifty pages.
No such luck.
The private individual review was scheduled for four o’clock—just at the time when the bar opened. Unfortunately, his reviewer stopped there first.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, handing Andy a tall glass of liquid the color of the ocean with a plastic dolphin perched on the side. “You are gonna love this.”
Andrew nodded, put the drink aside. No need to alienate his reviewer with the thoughts in his head.
“I thought about reading this ahead of time,” the unnamed man said. “But then I thought the real value comes if we read it together. Spontaneous like. I’ll be able to hear what does and doesn’t work.” He took a long sip from a drink that looked exactly like Andrew’s—only this one was half empty and had a plastic octopus hooked on the side of the glass.
“Let me get this straight,” Andrew said trying to keep his voice even. “You have not read my piece, and now you want me to read it out loud to you.”
“You got it. Of course, we won’t be able to read all of it in 30 minutes but we’ll get the flavor. And you know an agent or publisher only looks at the first page. If you don’t hook him then, you’re dead in the water. Let’s see if you hook me?” He took another massive swig.
Andrew wanted to hook the guy all right. With a nice piece of fishing tackle or maybe just his fist. He was done. He stood up. “You are a joke,” he said. “This place is a joke. I’m out of here.”
The guy looked up at him perplexed or bleary eyed—Andy couldn’t tell which and didn’t care. “Does that mean I can have your drink? They charge extra for the plastic animals.”
“Yeah, you can have my drink.” Andrew poured it over his head, and everyone in the mess hall grew quiet. Everyone except Bill, who charged over from the bar.
“You’re coming with me,” Bill said. “Now.”
“Like hell I am. This is a circus. No, make that a scam. I want my $5000 and a boat out of here.” He pulled Bill off him as if he were a leech. Unfortunately, all Bill had to do was raise his hand and three very big guys encircled Andrew.
“You’ve been a troublemaker since you stepped off the boat,” Bill said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Andrew said. “Give me my $5000 and I’ll leave quietly. Don’t give it to me, and you’ll see what kind of hard time I’ll give you. A law suit. Social media. Bad reviews. You’ll see what I can do.”
As soon as he said it, he regretted it. Andrew wasn’t in a position of power. He looked around the room to see if he could raise an army, but everyone else had their heads down. This was his fight, and he was in no position to win it.
The circle of three closed in on him. He remembered the dead participant who “fell” off the end of the pier.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I lost my cool. I’ve found it again.”
Bill looked skeptical. He nodded to the body guards. “Escort him back to his room,” Bill said. “Make sure he stays there. I’ll talk to Jean Louise and we’ll settle this tonight.” Bill fingered his beard. His tone changed. “We’ll come to a mutual understanding.”
As it turned out there wasn’t time for a mutual understanding. The men escorted Andrew back to his room. They positioned themselves outside in the hall as Andrew put the key in the lock.
Before he could turn it, the door swung open.
There on the bed lay Maria, eyes open, dead. Andrew yelled for help and all three men tumbled into the room.
“Jesus Christ, what have you done?” the biggest one said. “Harry, call Bill. See if he wants us to call the police.”
“See if he wants you to call the police?” Andrew screamed. “Call the damn police or I’ll call them myself. And don’t touch anything.”
“You think she’s dead?” Harry asked.
The big one shook his head and shrugged. “She looks dead.”
“Well, I’m gonna check.” Harry reached over, two fingers on her carotid. “Dead and gettin’ stiff. This didn’t just happen. She’s been dead a couple of hours at least. See that puncture wound over her heart. Sharp, small point. Looks like a . . . .
“Screw driver,” Andrew said softly.
“Hey, man, you use that screwdriver on her?” Harry said.
“Shit,” was all Andrew could manage.
“Joe, get the screwdriver from the meeting room and bring Bill back here now.”
“You can save your breath. I’m here,” said Bill.
Behind him stood Jean Louise. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “Maria! We can’t hush this one up, Bill.”
“Shut your mouth,” Bill said.
“Never say that to me again,” Jean Louise hissed. “Never again. I’m the reason you’re here.”
Andrew was now certain he was in a mad house. Can’t hush this one up? What the hell did that mean? And where was the screw driver? Jean Louise had it didn’t she? Was it really the murder weapon?
He heard Geoff before he saw him.
“What’s all the commotion? I thought you might want the screwdrier as a souvenir, so I left it for you outside your door. I guess you found it.” Geoff pointed to the screw driver on the bed, and Andrew grabbed it to examine it.
Then Geoff saw Maria. “What have you done? Sure, she’s a nuisance, but she didn’t deserve this. You must have some temper!”
“Look, you idiot. I had nothing to do with this. I was with you all afternoon, remember?”
The first body guard spoke up. “She’s been dead a while. Locked door. Your room. It don’t look good for you mister.”
Andrew raised his hand, the hand holding the screw driver, and the guard shoved his arm behind his back. The screw driver clanked to the floor.
“I’m calling the police,” Bill said. “We have no choice. You keep him subdued until they get here. Do whatever you have to do.”
Andrew stopped struggling. He slid to the floor beside the bed, beside Maria’s body. The guard let him go. “Just don’t try to get up, buddy.”
“I’m down and out. Not going anywhere,” Andy said.
A crowd had gathered in the hallway. Bill ordered everyone to the mess hall. He’d make an announcement there in a few minutes. And dinner would be served after that. Anything to keep a mutiny from occurring.
It took the police half an hour to arrive by launch. Andrew hadn’t moved and neither had his guards. They stepped out of the way when the detective and crime scene squad arrived. Andy couldn’t remember much about the night.
Questioning occurred in one of the unoccupied guest rooms. How did he know the young woman? Why was she in his room? He answered what he could, lost in a CSI world. Part of him hoped this was a prank—intended to wring out strong emotions and give everyone’s writing a jolt of new intensity. He’d never actually touched Maria—maybe she wasn’t dead, only acting.
By morning he knew it was no joke. He called his wife. She called a lawyer. Geoff offered to help in any way he could. The other participants stayed away.
Geoff looked sympathetic. “I know you didn’t mean to kill her. She can be annoying. Everyone knows that.”
“I didn’t kill her,” Andrew said.
“Yeah, sure. I just meant if you had we could all understand. She’s a bitch. All the guys here know that. A tease.”
“You knew her?”
“No. Just hearsay.”
Jean Louise overheard their conversation. “But of course you knew her, Geoffrey or whatever you’re calling yourself these days. She was all over you last year. You remember, don’t you?”
Andy studied Geoff. “I thought you missed last year—got sick and got bumped to this course.”
“That’s right. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else, Jean Louise.” He turned to Andrew. “You know she doesn’t think straight.”
“Oh, Goeff. You can’t imagine that using a pseudonym, shaving your head and growing a beard would make you unrecognizable. You, your friend and Maria were thick as thieves last year. What was your friend’s name?”
“His name was Mark. But we weren’t here together. You have that wrong.”
Jean Louise rubbed a hand over her face. “And then there was that terrible argument. Yes, I remember.” She looked as if a light was slowly dawning. “It was over Maria. She seemed to fancy Mark more than you. That was it. That was when you took sick. Right after your friend fell off the pier. I was surprised you wanted to come back, but hope springs eternal.” She looked hard at Geoff. “You thought you could make her love you, didn’t you?”
“You’re a demented fool!” Geoff said.
“Not so demented,” Jean Louise said.
“Maria confided in me. You scared her. You pushed her down a flight of stairs last year and she never fully recovered. She was determined to stay away from you.”
“That’s where I came in,” Andrew said. “That’s why she wanted to stay near me. A happily married guy who wouldn’t bother her. Who might protect her.” His face fell. “And all the time I thought she was a nut case.”
He turned on Geoff. “You did this to her and tried to frame me with the screw driver. You bastard!”
“It was obvious she fancied you. That wasn’t going to happen again. I was done with her, and I figured out a way to be done with both of you.” Geoff scoffed . “It doesn’t matter anymore. When Maria and I first met, she did care about me. Then, when she saw I was an unpublished author she lost interest. I came this time to tell her I’d signed a book deal, but it was too late. You were her hero, the self-published author of a half-dozen books. Screw you.”
Geoff grabbed the screw driver and attempted to do just that. But Andrew was too quick for him. He grabbed the screw driver out of Geoff’s hands and held it at Geoff’s throat.
“Do it. Do it. Put me out of my misery.” Geoffrey screamed.
Jean Louise stepped in. She took the screw driver from Andrew’s trembling hand. “Write about it instead,” she said.
“That’s a whole different genre—amateur sleuth, cozy mysteries,” Andy said. “Soft stuff.”
“It’s hot right now, exciting,” Jean Louise replied. “This end-of-the-world lit is becoming passé. Move on. If you have some recipes to put at the end of your cozy, that’ll seal the deal.
The lights were so much hotter than she’d expected. Tiffany could see her domed dessert listing to one side. Would Chef Grit notice? Of course she would. Tiffany resisted the impulse to push it to the left or to straighten her apron, or to make sure her blond pony tail was tidy. Instead she held her fidgety hands tightly behind her back.
Eleanor Grit was a large woman, more manly than fat. She towered over Tiffany and didn’t mind the height difference.“I’m not a judgmental person,” Eleanor said, looking down at her prey. “But I do know what I like, and frankly I know what’s good and what’s not.”
Tiffany stared up at her.
“This, my dear, is terrible. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” She smiled broadly at her culinary joke.
Tiffany did not smile back. Truth be told, she was close to tears, but she would not cry.
“This was an overly ambitious entry for such an inexperienced baker. Baked Alaska? Too much. Too old fashioned.”
“It’s Baked Louisiana,” Tiffany said quietly. “A take-off on the older dessert. I thought it might be a bit . . . whimsical.”
“Whimsical? Whatever made you think this contest was meant to be whimsical? The winner travels to Paris for a week with the greatest pastry chefs in the world.”
Tiffany stared at the ground. I will not cry she told herself.
“You have nothing to say?” Eleanor asked. “A competent chef can always explain his choices and his rationale.”
Before Tiffany could think of a response, Eleanor had moved on. “Next,” she shouted, “Ronald Bartrow.”
A young man scurried up with a pie decorated with bits of candied mango on top. A little too much anxiety sent the pie skidding off the plate and landing at Eleanor’s feet. She stepped over it and yelled for the next contestant, Simone duChamp”.
“You”re French?” Eleanor asked. “You have that dark coloring and emaciated body French women seem to covet.”
“Ah, oui,”Simone said without a trace of irritation. She knew she was beautiful—everyone told her so. “But I speak excellent English.”
Eleanor took a bite of her gateau Gallois.
“I’m afraid you speak better than you bake.” She spit out the bite the way a wine connoisseur might spit out a sip of wine. The difference was that Eleanor did it with dramatic disgust. “Truly inedible my dear.”
Unlike Tiffany, Simone had no intention of crying. “People warned me about you,” she said. “A woman who was never that good as a pastry chef, intent on making everyone else look bad. I didn’t believe them, but I should have.”
“Stop filming now!” Eleanor yelled. “You will remove that comment and this contestant from the show.” She marched off the stage. “I”ll be back when I’m back.”
The set went dark. The crew seemed unfazed by the outburst. They grabbed a cup of coffee and asked Simone and Tiffany if they might have some of their creations.
“What’s in this Baked Louisiana?” the boom operator asked. “It’s fantastic. Hey, Joe, get some of this while it lasts.”
“The secret is Meyer’s lemons,” Tiffany said.”I might as well tell you as I’m not about to win the contest.”
The gaffer was stuffing his mouth with the gateau Gallois. “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
“Merci, monsieur,” Simone said.
The contestants who had already been shafted gathered around the table with their rejected efforts. The other contestants kept their distance the way you might stay away from someone with the plague.
“It isn’t catching,” Tiffany said. “We aren’t a leper colony.”
“You’ll be joining us soon enough,” Simone said. She turned to Tiffany. “The whole thing is rigged, that’s what my friend said. But I figured all publicity was good publicity. People watch Eleanor Grit, the chef they love to hate. Now I won’t even be in the segment. Sometimes, my temper gets the best of me.”
“Oh, I loved what you said.” Tiffany smiled broadly. “I wished I’d had the nerve to speak up to her.”
“You did fine. Saying it was meant to be whimsical was a perfect way to show what a pompous drudge she is.”
“If it is rigged,” Tiffany asked, “who do you think is the winner?”
“Look at them.” She pointed to the five contestants waiting to be reviewed. “Notice anything?”
“They all look petrified.”
“All of them?” asked Simone. “Look again.”
One contestant was seated by herself, doing her nails. She noticed the two women staring at her and frowned at them.
“You mean her?” Tiffany asked.
“Who does their nails during a bake-off? The smell alone would drive a judge crazy. A real judge I mean.”
There was no more time for speculation. Eleanor had returned to the set. Lights went back on as if nothing had happened.
“You did clear that last segment,” she said to the director.
“Good as done,” he replied.
‘Very well, who’s next?” She looked at her roster and called Ambrose Pendergrast. She tasted his offering of a flaky cherry pie.
“Hmm,” she said. “Mediocre at best. Such an imposing name and such a disappointing offering.” That didn’t stop her from taking several more bites.
Next she called the girl with the newly-painted nails. “Ashley Arora.”
Eleanor studied the young woman before tasting her seven-layer cake. “Lovely,” she said. “Both you and the cake. A wonderful presentation, your nails the shade of the frosting. Stunning.”
Ashley beamed. “Thank you.”
Eleanor took a rather large bite of the cake. It seemed as if she might have bitten into something not quite edible. She turned her back to the camera and removed a piece of tin foil. When she returned her smile was in place. “This is exquisite. Where did you get the recipe, my dear?”
“My grandmother gave it to me days before she died. Her last wish was to have me learn how to bake her seven-layer cake. She helped me in the kitchen that last day. Sadly she didn’t live to taste it.”
“Perhaps not so sad,” Eleanor said and then seemed to catch herself. “I mean she got to pass on a wonderful recipe to you. That is all that would have mattered to her.”
Tiffany and Simone nodded knowingly at one another. They made a beeline to the serving table to get their own taste of this exquisite dessert once Ashley left the stage.
Simone took the first bite.“It’s disgusting,” she said. “I think she must have substituted salt for sugar. It’s horrible.”
Tiffany took a much smaller taste. Kinder by nature, she couldn’t find words for her experience.
Ashley walked up as they were about to throw their plates away. “Oh my God, you’re not eating that are you? It’s liable to make you sick. Don’t do that.”
She ran off with the rest of the cake before either one of them could respond. Ashley dumped all seven layers in a nearby trash can.
“What was that?” Simone asked.
“Quiet on the set,” the director shouted. “We have more contestants.”
Tiffany and Simone took a seat. “I probably don’t have to stay,” Simone said, “since they took me out of the whole show. I know they like to see how disappointed all the losers are. I’ll stay with you if you like.”
“Please,” Tiffany said.
Together they watched as the last three contestants brought their desserts to the tasting table. Eleanor was in good form. Each of them got a unique dressing down.
“How does she come up with all those comments?” Tiffany asked.
“I’m sure she has a writer giving her the one-liners.”
The last contestant left the stage. Eleanor stood, ready to make the announcement of the winner. She got as far as “Ashley,” but couldn’t seem to get “Arora” out of her mouth. Instead she lurched forward and then keeled over, the camera catching her every movement.
“Oh my God,” Tiffany said. She and Simone were on their feet. “This can’t be happening.”
A crowd gathered around Eleanor. Shouts came. “Is she breathing? Get a doctor.”
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
A handsome Indian man rose from his seat. “I’m a doctor.” The crowd parted and the young man knelt beside Eleanor. He pulled out a stethoscope he apparently had in his pocket and listened to her heart. He opened one eyelid.
“Gone, I’m afraid.”
The camera crew hadn’t stopped filming. They swept the audience and the contestants for their signs of grief and fear.
A security guard stepped forward. “No one can leave until the police arrive. We have to know if this was an accidental death or murder?”
“Murder? Murder?” The word ricocheted around the room.
“Like poison?” Simone asked. And then she looked at Tiffany. “Are you feeling all right? I’m a little queasy. You don’t think that cake—”
“But Ashley won the contest,” Tiffany replied.
“Yes, but not on her merits. The cake tasted, you know, metallic.”
Simone was looking a little green.
Tiffany helped her sit down. “I don’t feel sick at all,” Tiffany said.
“Yes, but you barely had a bite. I warned you off.”
Tiffany nodded. “It’s true. I owe my life to you. We have to get that doctor over here.”
Tiffany ran in search of the Indian physician. He was off stage getting made-up.
“What? What’s going on?” Tiffany screamed. “My friend thinks she may be dying from that cake that Eleanor ate and said she loved.”
“What are you rambling on about? Look, I have a show to do next. What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem? A woman is dead and you have a show to do?”
The young man paused and asked the make-up artist to leave for just a moment.
He took both of Tiffany’s hands in his own. “You do know you’re on a reality TV show, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Tiffany said.
“Well then you should not be alarmed. The ratings for Eleanor’s show were falling. She needed to do something. We’ll bring her back in the next episode.”
At that moment, Eleanor stopped by. “Thanks, Jeff, you were perfect."
“I guess you didn’t tell your contestants what was going on?”
“How could we and get their honest reactions? Really Jeff, you know fake news has to be very dramatic and convincing. It was, don’t you think?”
If Tiffany had had a frying pan at that moment or a good paring knife, Eleanor’s death might not have remained fake news. Instead she stormed off to let Simone know she wasn’t dying.
After a moment of hysterical relief, Simone looked at Tiffany. “The world thinks Eleanor is dead, n’est pas?”
“What if something happens before the next show and Eleanor really is dead?”
Tiffany blanched. “You don’t mean that.”
Simone studied Tiffany’s shocked expression. “Of course not,” she said with an enigmatic expression. “But I do think I may bring her a few new desserts to help her in her recovery. Anonymously of course.
Tiffany hesitated and then nodded. “I think I can help with that. I suppose if something were to happen to Chef Grit, the network might be looking for a replacement, perhaps a dynamic duo—one Southern and one French.”
“You’re a genius, Tiffany.” Simone kissed her on each cheek. “I love your concept of reality TV—when one’s fantasies become the truth.”