This one won the Baby Bird in the Coveted Dead Bird event. The Baby Bird is the award for best first time entrant.
Thyme in a Bottle
Molly stared at the unmoving body at the foot of the stairs. She yelled for someone to call 911 as she knelt to feel for a pulse. Nothing. People ran out of their rooms and stood in dismay. Finally, a man brushed past her to pick up the phone at the check-in counter and asked for an ambulance.
What a day, and now this… She had started her morning serving breakfast, cleaning guest rooms, then working in the garden.
Molly pulled a weed from the reluctant ground and shook the clinging dirt from its roots before tossing it in the wheelbarrow. Her back was starting to ache but she wanted to finish before heading into Fresno for supplies. She loved running a bed and breakfast in the Sierra Nevada mountain range just outside Yosemite National Park, but it was definitely a full-time job. Giving people a vacation was hard work.
In the five years she had owned Mountain Mamas, others had come to town to try the B& B business; some opened new places and some bought existing inns. All had called it quits in under a year. One couple lasted only two weeks. Molly though, was in it for the long haul.
Finally the last weed was out of the herb garden. She picked some thyme and rosemary to use in an appetizer later. Although breakfast was the only full meal offered, it was her custom to have early evening drinks and hors d'oeuvres available. She still had to start the dough for the herb roll-up she was planning.
Thirty minutes later, Molly was in her pickup headed off the mountain. The sun and tree branches flashed uneven shadows as the truck sped around the curves. She rolled down the window, turned up the radio, and took a mental inventory of her guests. The inn had four rooms available but she currently had one vacancy. Everyone was booked for the entire weekend, which meant she had been able to leave this morning without changing linens; it was quick work to make beds and replace towels.
The couple in the Wildflower Suite looked younger than Chub who delivered newspapers after his sophomore English class at Yosemite High. Jenna and Rod Chilton, from San Francisco. They had chatted with her during check-in the previous evening. He gave Molly an attractive cut-glass bottle of herb-infused olive oil and asked if she would consider using it this weekend. It was a new product his company was thinking of selling and they wanted her opinion for their market research.
Molly took the carafe, but made no promises. Rod stood and chatted a few minutes, trying to charm her into using the oil, she knew. He seemed sincere. Jenna was one of those emaciated young women who could actually look good in the current hip-hugging fashions. They were a cute couple, but in twenty years they would resemble the pair in the Timberline Suite.
Denise and Frank Platt. You could tell by looking, Denise had spent more than a few nights home alone with the Chardonnay. She asked for restaurant recommendations, and about Happy Hour in the next breath. Frank barely contained his impatience to check-in so he could power up his laptop and check email.
The Gold Rush Room was taken by a couple between the ages of the Chiltons and Platts. Jonathan Richmond and Katherine Payne had checked in with a well-practiced routine showing they were regular travelers. Katherine mentioned she was looking forward to antiquing the next day while Jonathan fished.
Everyone had overlapped at breakfast by a few minutes and Molly had been busy heating quiches, serving muffins, and brewing more coffee. They had all dispersed as soon as they ate and she was able to clean up and weed the garden before she made her supply run.
As she approached Fresno, Molly thanked God for urban sprawl. The new Costco and Home Depot on the north side of town saved her at least an hour of running around. She bought provisions and was back up the mountain in time to get her bread dough out of the machine and rising again for the herbed-cheese pinwheel.
A few hours later Molly parked in back of the inn and unloaded groceries. She put away the refrigerated items and punched down the bread dough. After it was rolled flat, she mixed cream cheese with the fresh thyme picked earlier and spread the mixture on the dough. In twenty minutes, the pinwheels were rising and the supplies were unpacked.
At four o’clock, appetizers were ready in the parlor. She had even managed a change of clothes. Besides the herb roll, she had set out cheese and crackers, jumbo garlic-stuffed green olives, and a sliced baguette with Rod’s flavored olive oil for dipping. The wine was chilled and the coffee hot.
“Do you get CNN in here?” Frank Platt asked as he entered the room. He headed for the food and loaded a plate. Denise followed but poured a glass of wine and sat at a small table.
“I’m sorry, there’s no television in here,” Molly answered. “Most of the guests like having a common room where they can talk without distractions.”
“I guess I’ll go upstairs and get the news off my laptop. I’m waiting to hear about a bid.” He glanced at his wife. “You coming?”
“No. I’m fine here.” Denise raised her glass in a toast. “Just don’t go to dinner without me.” Frank left with his plate, passing Rod and Jenna Chilton.
“I can’t believe you just left me there, on the trail, all alone and with a twisted….” Jenna stopped abruptly when she realized they weren’t alone.
“Hi there.” Molly greeted them. “There’re snacks here and wine and coffee at the bar. Help yourselves. Did you have a good time?” She knew they had spent the day in Yosemite Valley.
“Peachy,” Rod answered as he found the wine. Jenna glared at him.
“No, we had an awful hike,” she said. “Rod knows I’m not athletic. He promised it would be easy, but it was the death march from hell. Straight up, with rocks and ledges and mist from the falls. I slipped and twisted my ankle. He just went off and left me by the side of the trail.”
“Jenna, you told me to go ahead. You said you’d be fine and would wait for me and we’d walk down together. If you didn’t want me to go, you should have said so. I didn’t know ‘go’ was girl-code for ‘don’t go.’”
“You should have known better than to leave me all alone, no matter what I said.”
“Fine, I’m sorry, I’ll never leave you again.” He piled a plate, drizzled olive oil over the towering assortment, winked at Molly, and then sat on the love seat.
Jonathan and Katherine tumbled in. They had been rushing to beat each other to the snacks. After helping themselves to plates, they tried to make small talk with Jenna.
“Isn’t it gorgeous here?” Katherine asked.
“Are you local?”
“No. I’m going to take a hot bath.” The last sentence was directed to Rod. Jenna limped up the stairs without looking back.
“Sorry about that. She’s tired,” Rod said to Katherine.
Jonathan sat up and looked at Rod. “Do I know you from somewhere? You look familiar.”
“We’re from the Bay Area, got here yesterday.”
“Whereabouts in the Bay Area?”
“We live in San Jose. I work in the city for Arrested Development.”
“The company that makes those wrinkle removers?”
“We prefer ‘anti-aging products,’” Rod replied. “ Or ‘time-defying’ is even better. We’re also getting ready to branch out into the herbal markets, holistic health, possibly foods as well. All natural stuff, you know.”
“I work for Baines & Baines, the brokerage,” said Jonathan. “We did some of the preliminary paperwork on your upcoming take-over war with KDP Pharmaceuticals. Until you decided to go with Stephens and Barnes. Maybe I saw you at one of those meetings.”
“Jon,” Katherine said, “let’s walk to the creek before dinner. Do you still want pizza?”
“Yes, I do.” Jonathan set their empty glasses on the bar. He and Katherine left through the front door and started down the walkway.
Denise filled her wine glass for the third time and headed upstairs. Rod finished his plate and put it on the bar. His hand was trembling.
“Are you okay?” Molly asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine, just tired. I think I’ll see if Jenna is out of the tub so I can soak for a few minutes before dinner. Anywhere in town to get sushi?”
“No, I’m sorry. There is a teppanyaki place, if you want Asian. Happy Japan Grill, just off the main drag, take a right at the second stop sign.”
“Thanks.” Rod started up the stairs as Molly put the wine away. A crash brought her running into the foyer.
Rod was in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.
It seemed hours had passed but it was only about forty minutes later when the EMT’s quit performing CPR and called for the coroner. The sheriff’s deputy asked all guests to remain in the common room. Jenna was past hysterical and seemed catatonic.
“Why did I yell at him? Why didn’t I tell him I love him?” She spoke quietly while Denise sat with an arm around her shoulders in silent support. Jonathan and Katherine had returned from their walk and sat nearby. Frank took charge, delivering the sheriff’s messages to the group and kept them posted on the arrival of the coroner and detective.
Still later, the ambulance drove off with Rod’s body but without the lights and siren it arrived with. Finally, the detective stepped into the common room and addressed the group.
“I’m Sgt. Justus. Ironic, I know. And I’ve heard all the jokes. I’d rather skip ‘em and get right to the situation here. Did any of you have a prior relationship with the deceased?” Jenna raised her hand. “Besides you, ma’am.”
Several pairs of eyes moved to Jonathan.
“I … I didn’t ‘know him,’ know him. My company did some work for his, and I saw him at a few meetings. We never spoke; I didn’t even know his name until this morning.”
“The coroner can’t be sure of a cause of death until after the autopsy. What did he do today? What did he eat?” The sergeant turned to Jenna.
“We had the breakfast here, then went to the Valley floor in the park and hiked. We did the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. I fell part way up the trail so I waited for him at the bridge at the bottom of the falls. He went on to the top, then we came back down together. He was fine all day. We had some appetizers here, then I went up to take a bath before dinner.”
The detective turned to Molly. “What did you serve this morning and evening?”
“I purchase frozen quiches from the bakery in town. I heat and serve slices for breakfast. Everyone had the same thing. There’s also fresh fruit, muffins, bagels and cereal set out. Everyone helps themselves. Tonight, I made a cream cheese and thyme pinwheel roll, cheese and crackers, olives, a sliced baguette with olive oil for dipping, wine and coffee. Everyone had the same thing,” she repeated. Her heart was sinking as she spoke. If there was any suspicion that her food caused Rod’s death, her business was over. She might as well move to Fresno and go to beauty school. She’d never get another job in the food or tourist industry. “Oh, I just remembered. The olive oil for the baguette. It was Rod’s. He gave it to me when they checked in. He said his company was thinking of expanding their herb section into food as well as holistic health. He wanted me to use the herb oil and tell him what I thought.”
“What kind of herb?”
“It looked like thyme. I remember thinking it would go well with the cheese roll.”
“I’ll be taking the oil and a sample of all the other foods here. That’s all for tonight. I’ll be back in the morning.”
The next day, Sgt. Justus arrived just as everyone had gathered for breakfast.
“Well, it was definitely the oil,” he announced to the group. “There was enough essential oil of thyme in there to stop an elephant’s heart.”
“I don’t understand, Sergeant.” Molly was puzzled. “Aren’t herb oils harmless?”
“Yes, herb-infused oils are fine. The problem is, the oil I took from you also contained an essential oil with thymol, which is thyme’s active ingredient. Essential oils are used in aromatherapy and other crap like that. They are toxic if the concentration is high enough. Like I said, that oil had more than enough thymol to kill a man. So we’re going to move from means to opportunity and motive. Anyone have something to say?”
“But Sergeant,” Denise said, “everyone had opportunity during the day to add the essential oil to the olive oil. And none of us knew Rod before we arrived.”
“Not strictly true, Mrs. Platt. Mr. Richmond knew him through work. And your husband’s company is currently waging a hostile take-over against Arrested Development. So, some of you had a prior acquaintance. And by the way, can you tell me how your fingerprints came to be on the jar of olive oil? You were the only one who didn’t eat any appetizers last night. You’re prints should only be on your wine glass. The lab matched yours to a set on the olive oil.”
Denise stood up. “This is ridiculous. Why would I want to kill a complete stranger?”
Sgt. Justus motioned to a deputy to block the door. “I don’t know. Why would you? Why did you?”
“Frank, do something! Tell this man he’s wrong.”
Frank looked at Denise. “You were asking me about the herbal formulas Arrested Development makes. You wanted to know all about the take-over bid. Did you do this?”
Denise walked to the bar and with a shaking hand reached for the left over wine from the night before. She drank from the bottle and straightened her shoulders. She stared back at them all.
“It was a mistake. I just wanted to make him sick. I didn’t know how much essential oil to add. I was trying to help you, Frank. If their herbs were contaminated and made people sick, the take-over would be less expensive. And we’d be rich. Rich enough for you to afford a CNN and Fox News chip implanted right into your brain. No more being glued to the laptop, you’d always be online.”
Frank watched in shock as the deputy cuffed his wife’s arms behind her back and led her out to the patrol car.
“Sergeant, what’s going to happen?”
“You need a lawyer. A good one. You can visit her in the county jail later today. Bring her personal things; we’re just a rural, mountain jail. I don’t think she’ll need any cosmetics though.” The detective followed his prisoner outside.
Frank faced the others. “Is there such a thing as a CNN implant chip?”