Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Five

I smelled him before I heard him. Mr. Bitterman showed up ten minutes after I got home, this time with something he was passing off as soup. Or possibly paint thinner. It was thin and greenish, with chunks of what might or might not have been carrots floating in the depths. As bad as it looked, it smelled worse. Like something you'd find growing on the banks of a very polluted lake.

He'd dressed for dinner in a 1950s-era brown suit with thin blue pinstripes, white socks, and black shoes. He'd combed his hairs. It was touching and tragic at the same time.

"Did you eat, Martha Hudson? I brought you something from the soup and salad chapter."

I hadn't, but I wasn't much in the mood for chewable soup. Besides, my microwave was still a mess, thanks to the cabbage disaster a few nights earlier, and I refused to put a burner on to heat up a bowl of strained weeds.

"Actually," I said, "I'm not really hungry."

"Perfect." He brightened. "This is meant to be a light meal."

Yes, I supposed a teaspoon of dinner would qualify as a light meal. That would be about all I could stomach. But I looked into his earnest, wrinkled little face and didn't have the heart to turn him away. Against my better judgment, I invited him in and settled him on the sofa while I took the container of soup into the kitchen and reluctantly heated it in a pan on the stove. I sliced a loaf of Italian bread and shuttled everything back into the living room.

Mr. Bitterman's jacket was hanging over the back of the sofa, and he was sitting there with his tie loosened and the top two buttons of his shirt undone. His sleeves were rolled up. Everywhere I looked was gray hair and loose skin.

I slid the tray of food onto the coffee table and tried not to look anymore.

He did an exaggerated sniff. "That smells delicious. I think this recipe might be a winner."

I smiled and handed him the bread basket.

He leaned forward and dipped a slice of bread in his soup. Part of it came out missing.

I frowned into my bowl.

"So how was your day, Martha Hudson?" He took a bite of the soggy bread and kept breathing, which was promising but not convincing.

I went with a slice of bread. Dry. "Honestly, it could have been better."

"How?" he asked.

I paused in midbite. "What?"

"How could your day have been better? What happened?"

"I don't really want to get into it," I said gloomily.

"You don't think I can help," he said.

I shook my head. "I didn't say that."

"My wife and I talked about everything," he said. "Well, mostly she talked, and I listened, but I was pretty good at it. It seemed to do her good to talk things out. Might do you good too."

Maybe it would. It had to be better than spending the night inside my own head. Also, I couldn't eat while I was talking.

"My great-aunt died recently," I said, "and I've been going through her things. I came across something that makes me wonder how she died."

He paused with a spoonful of soup halfway to his mouth. It seemed to be bubbling. I'd have to remember to boil that spoon. And the bowl.

"You don't know how she died?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Not for sure. The medical examiner thought she passed from natural causes—"

He snorted. I had to agree with him there.

"—but to me, it looks like…" I trailed off, not wanting to say the M word out loud.

"She got whacked?" he finished for me.

I stared at him.

He tapped his temple. "I'm up with the times. I watch CSI." He handed me the last slice of bread. "What makes you say that?"

I tore the bread in half and gave him back a piece. "Well, the medical examiner's conclusion isn't supported by the evidence I found at her house."

"Evidence," he repeated.

I shrugged, a little embarrassed by the sound of the word when I said it aloud.

"Well, you knew your aunt better than the so-called authorities did," he said.

"That's the problem," I admitted. "I really didn't. I didn't know she existed."

"Neither did they," he pointed out. "Except for the tax collectors, I bet. They always know you exist, especially if you stop sending them money. They don't seem to like it when you shut off the cash spigot. But that's another story."

A smile tugged at my lips, but I wasn't sure he was kidding.

The bread slipped out of his hand and disappeared into his soup. He ran his spoon around in the bowl, trying to fish it out. He couldn't find it.

"Hmph," he said and put the spoon down. "That's funny."

Nothing funny about it. That was how acid worked.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked. "I wouldn't mind taking up another hobby. A man can only cook so many hours a day, and it sounds like you could use some help."

He probably weighed less than I did, couldn't see to the end of his own arm, and it was only a matter of time before his culinary misadventures carried him off to that great chef's kitchen in the sky.

He was adorable, and I wanted to hug him.

"I appreciate the offer, Mr. Bitterman," I said, "but I think I'm getting a handle on it."

He nodded. "Be careful, Martha Hudson. Some things are better left alone."

Like his edge-of-the-river soup. At least with that, I had a choice.

Kate's death—not so much.

* * *

"I can't believe you went back to see Dr. Watson," Irene said two days later. "What was he wearing? Was he wearing blue? I bet he looks good in blue with those eyes."

I handed her a box full of papers. We were back in the living room at Kate's house. My house. The sun was streaming through the ancient windows, which would have been pleasant except I could see the dust motes hanging in the air like little allergenic snowflakes. I was settled in front of her ancient rolltop desk. I hoped to find substantiation of Kate's reasonably good health somewhere in there. Then I planned to take it right to the medical examiner's office. But not because I wanted to see Watson's blue eyes. I wanted a new report, one with a different conclusion that would demand Lestrade's attention.

I also wanted to know why anyone would want Kate dead. But one step at a time.

"I don't know what he was wearing," I said. "Other than a lab coat. I didn't notice."

"Right. He's so easy to overlook." Irene dug into the box. "What is all this stuff anyway?"

"What isn't it?" I mumbled. As far as I could tell, Kate had saved everything from supermarket receipts to electric bills. My glance fell on a handwritten letter from roughly a year earlier, addressed to a state senator. She'd had a graceful cursive that wasn't seen much in the age of 140-character communication. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of the content of the letter. It was a nasty diatribe against the unreasonable rise of property taxes and the decline in services statewide. It ended with a strong suggestion that the senator resign his post and retreat to a life better suited to someone of his limited intellect and shameful lack of ethics.

"What's wrong?" Irene had stopped rifling through the contents of the box and was staring at me.

I shook my head. "Nothing. Just…nothing." I folded the letter in thirds and stuck it back in the desk. For some reason, I found it a little embarrassing, although I couldn't imagine why. Not like I'd written it. If I'd written it, I probably wouldn't have been so polite. "Did you find anything?"

"Nah, this is just old bills and word-search magazines." Irene closed the flaps and picked up another box. "Maybe this one is where she hid the winning lottery ticket."

I rolled my eyes. If only. "How'd the meeting go with the boyfriend babysitters the other day?"

Irene shrugged. "Haven't decided yet. They don't have a business plan. I don't think they know what a business plan is. I'll meet with them again after they have time to do their homework."

I pulled some more papers out of the slot where the senator's letter had been stashed. More letters. To the mayor, to city council, to the Department of Sanitation, to the chief of police. All of them handwritten beautifully and complaining bitterly about everything from the time of day that household trash was collected (too early) to the number of barking dogs in the neighborhood (too many) to the level of noise in the park down the street (too high) and the city's parking restrictions (too stringent).

And still more letters. To the Chronicle's subscription department, complaining that her daily newspaper hadn't been left on her top step, as she'd preferred, and hadn't been double-bagged despite the forecast of rain. That a neighbor had walked his barking dog past her house at eleven o'clock at night. And another neighbor had slammed his front door at three o'clock in the morning. And still another had the gall to let his cat wander through her yard and drink from her birdbath. Which, I could guess, had probably been used by insomniac birds who sang in the shower without the courtesy of a complaint department.

I shuffled through the letters with a sinking heart. My great-aunt Kate didn't seem like she'd been the sweet little old lady I wanted her to be. She seemed like she'd been a mean-spirited grouch. I was starting to feel like she'd left her house to me only so she'd have someone to finally clean it. Although she'd have probably complained about how I did that too.

"Something?" Irene was watching me again.

I held up the pages. "She wrote a lot of letters."

"That's nice," Irene said. "Nobody writes letters anymore. Were they to some long-lost love?"

"They were to everybody," I said.

Irene tilted her head sideways in silent question.

I rifled through the pile. "Newspaper delivery. Noise. Barking dogs. Drinking cats."

"Well, those drinking cats can be annoying," Irene said. "What are you talking about?"

I sighed. It was official—I was related to a nut case.

She held out her hand. "Let me see what you've got there."

I passed them over.

Irene flipped through the letters, pausing to scan a few. "Hey, Marty, did you see this?"

I had my head in my hands and my eyes closed to the monumental job ahead of me. I didn't want to see it. "No."

"You don't even know what I'm talking about."

"It doesn't matter," I said.

"It might." Irene extracted a few letters from the pile and dropped the rest on the sofa. "A lot of these have to do with noise in the park down the street."

"Parks are public spaces," I said. "They can get noisy. Maybe she should have lived in a bubble." I pulled in a deep breath and let it out. "What am I saying? She did live in a bubble. A dirty, messy bubble."

"You can hire people to deal with that," Irene said impatiently. "Listen to me. She started out just complaining about the noise, but something changed. She died on the 20th, right?"


"Well, on the 14th, she was complaining about criminals in the park."

I lifted my head. "Criminals?"

Irene nodded. "She doesn't go into detail, but she's pretty insistent that something was going on and that the police should check it out."

The park was a couple doors down. Criminals might be in the park. Criminals committed crimes. Like robbery and murder. I had no way of knowing if anything was missing, but I knew that Kate was dead.

I looked at Irene. "Let's go to the park."

* * *

The park was called The Panhandle, a small offshoot of Golden Gate Park on the east side. While Golden Gate Park spanned several city blocks, at this end the narrow section had more of a smaller neighborhood feel with a couple of walking trails and a playground. And it didn't look like the kind of place where criminals would gather, unless they were into picnics and sandboxes. Kids played on swings, slides, and seesaws while their mothers sat on wrought iron benches, chatting, reading, knitting, or just looking relieved that another child was occupying theirs for a while. The most sinister thing going on in the playground was a teary controversy over the provenance of a pink plastic bucket. A group of older Asian men were huddled around a cluster of picnic tables, playing chess with the same air of gravitas required of nuclear disarmament talks. To our right, an uber-flexible older woman in shorts and bare feet guided a small group through a yoga session. Ahead, I could hear the clatter of skateboards as a group of young guys, who clearly didn't comprehend that they had bones inside of them that could break, flung themselves with abandon down railings and off of the lip and into the cavernous gully of a skate park.

Nothing felt spooky or dangerous. The hairs on the back of my neck stayed put. No goose bumps speckled my arms. I didn't feel the urge to keep glancing back over my shoulder.

And I wasn't alone.

"This feels nice," Irene said, glancing around.

I nodded in happy agreement. This was nice, having a park so close. It was good to have trees and grass and flowers to look at in an urban setting. During warm weather, I'd probably be able to hear the singing of birds and the laughter of children right from my living room.

"Of course," Irene added, "it is still daytime."

I looked at her sharply.

She pointed. "There aren't a whole lot of lights."

Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked upward. She was right. The walking path that snaked through the park would be lit at night only at intervals, leaving more than a few places that would stay in the shadows. Places where angular people in long black coats and cold white faces could lurk, watch, and wait for opportunities to pounce on other unsuspecting people who might be getting home late from jobs as, say, baristas at a coffee bar.

I shivered.

Still, looking at the sun-dappled playground, feeling the warm, gentle breeze, and being among all these law-abiding citizens didn't steer my mind toward thoughts of killers.

"I don't get a dangerous vibe here," I said. "This part of the park isn't that big, and even with so few lights, there aren't exactly a lot of places to hide." I sighed. "I think maybe Kate was just looking for something else to complain about."

"Maybe." Irene tipped her head toward the chess players. "But it wouldn't hurt to ask around."

"And say what?" I asked. "Pardon me, but have you seen a murderer lurking behind that tree over there?"

"I might word it slightly differently," Irene said. "But yes." She took a few steps in the direction of the chess match before pausing. "Are you coming? This is your neighborhood, after all."

Not really. The Victorian was expensively far from livable, so at the moment my neighborhood was Mr. Bitterman and 2B and cold water from the hot tap and insufficient closet space.

But we'd already falsified a government document and lied to government officials. Talking to some guys playing chess in the park seemed pretty insignificant by comparison.

I stuck my hands in my pockets. "I guess so. But you do the talking. If there's a chance these are going to be my neighbors someday, I don't want them to think I'm crazy."

Irene grinned. "It's bound to happen sooner or later."

I made a face and followed her over to the picnic tables. Although I wasn't much of a chess player, I understood the basics, and I knew the game took concentration. Which made me wonder about the slim guy who was glowering at us rather than focusing on the board. His eyes were narrowed, his face was pinched, and his mouth was downturned. His dark hair was shot through with silver, but other than that it was impossible to tell his age, somewhere between acne and liver spots. He was dressed in khaki pants that looked to be two sizes too big by the way they bunched at his ankles, and a plaid shirt opened at the neck to reveal a white T underneath. And he was definitely sending out Do Not Disturb vibes.

So naturally, we started with him.

"Excuse me," Irene said. "I wonder if we could ask you a few questions."

"No questions," he snapped.

Some heads rose around the table, but no one said anything. Guess they were used to his winning personality.

"Do you spend much time here in the park?" Irene asked him, unfazed.

He grunted.

Some heads lowered again, but a few of the men kept watching silently.

"Have you ever seen anyone who looked suspicious to you?" she asked.

The man moved his bishop a few spaces. His hands were slim and surprisingly feminine looking, except for the sliver of a tattoo visible at the end of his sleeve. It could have been the stem of a daisy or the tail of a Komodo dragon. He had pretty hands for a man. I wondered how strong they were. Strong enough to kill an older woman?

"What's suspicious?" he asked finally.

Irene didn't hesitate. "Someone who seemed to be sneaking around. Or maybe sitting and staring at one of the houses down the street. Or something."

He shrugged. "People sit. People stare."

She glanced at me with raised eyebrows. I kind of agreed with her. It wasn't hard to imagine this guy and his shifty eyes sitting and staring right at Kate's door with a garrote in his pretty feminine hand, just waiting for his opportunity.

Not that it was fair to jump to conclusions, especially when it came to something like murder. But I didn't care much about being fair. I cared about finding out who'd wanted my great-aunt dead and had gotten what he wanted. So I'd already shoved Mr. Happy to the top of my list of suspects. Granted, it was a short list. He was it.

"Do you recognize any of the people around the park as regulars?" I asked him.

"We're all regulars," he said. "Go away."

Irene sighed. "You can talk to us now, or you can talk to Sherlock Holmes later."

I scowled at her. She really had to stop name-dropping like that, even if it was a made-up name she was dropping. It could only get us in trouble. More trouble than we might already be in if Dr. Watson decided to send the phony PI license over to Detective Lestrade, who did not seem like the forgiving type.

Mr. Happy looked up at her. "Who's Shirtlock Holmes?"

"Sherlock," she corrected.

I shot her an I told you so look. No one was going to take a name that weird seriously. It fairly screamed out "fake!"

If Irene caught my look, she ignored it. "He's a private investigator," she told Mr. Happy. "He happens to be our boss."

He went from pale to alabaster before his hand fell away from the chess piece, and he looked away. I remembered an article I'd read once about interpreting body language in a forensic context, and Mr. Happy could have been Exhibit A. Every move he made suggested an attempt to conceal—the lowered eyes, the foot jittering up and down, the hands fluttering around, subtly masking the deep scowl carved into the lines of his face. He acted like a man who felt trapped. Unless he was just an extremely nervous, incredibly irritable type, like a Chihuahua.

Maybe the fact that he wouldn't look us in the eye and seemed inordinately pale meant nothing at all.

Or maybe it did.

Okay, so maybe Irene was onto something with this Sherlock Holmes business. It did seem to open doors that would otherwise be slammed in our faces. Maybe she should print business cards. No telling what kind of information we could get out of people once we handed out cards for an authentic phony private investigator.

"They're regulars. Been bringing their kids here since they were in strollers." A man across the table pointed at the mothers. He was chunky, pink, and round with an astonishing head of hair and a slight overbite. He stood up and stuck out his hand. "Louis Chu."

"Any relation to Lucy Chu?" I asked him.

His smile grew. "She's my wife. You know Lucy?"

"We met when she brought me some of my aunt's mail," I told him. "Do you know many of the people here in the park?"

He nodded. "Most of them live right here in the neighborhood. Like her." He pointed at the yoga teacher. "She has a studio two blocks up that way. But she teaches classes here almost every day. Likes the feel of the earth under her feet. Or so she says." He nodded toward the skateboard park. "And those kids, they're here all the time too, trying to kill themselves with those things." He waved across the table. "We're here every afternoon, playing chess and staying out of our wives' way."

"How long have you been doing that?" I asked.

"Since we got married." He chuckled. "What do you think, Albert?" he asked Mr. Happy. "Two years or so we've been coming out?"

Albert gave a noncommittal shrug. It wouldn't have surprised me if Albert denied being there at that very moment. The mention of Sherlock Holmes had spooked him in a big way.

"That's what I thought," Louis said, although Albert hadn't said a word. "About two years. I'm semiretired now, so I take it easy in the afternoons. So is Albert. He was in sales."

Probably used car sales. The kind with doctored VIN numbers.

"I spent forty years in the souvenirs business," Louis went on. "Little bamboo fans, paper lanterns, silk kimonos…you name it, and I've sold it." He chuckled again.

"Yes, your wife mentioned that to me," I told him. "I wonder if you knew your neighbor Kate Quigley well?" I asked, steering the conversation back on track.

Heads raised around the table again.

"Kate Quigley?" His smile fell away slightly. "What about her?"

"She was my great-aunt," I said.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

That didn't sound genuine at all. It sounded like one of those wooden sympathies you expressed out of rote, but I didn't press it. Given Kate's knack for complaining, Louis might well have been the target of her vitriol at least once, so I couldn't blame him if he wasn't brokenhearted at her loss.

"I'm curious if you saw or heard her receiving any visitors lately?" I asked, repeating the question I'd already asked his wife.

Unfortunately, his response was much the same. "No. Sorry." He shook his head. "I don't remember any visitors."

"I remember Kate," another man said. He was round like Louis, but looked a bit older with lots of gray hair sticking out in all directions. "Blonde lady. Brash personality. Always complaining." He paused. "Sorry."

I waved him off. That sounded accurate so far.

"I used to see her walking her dog along the path. I think she'd rather he did his business here in the park instead of her yard."

Irene and I exchanged a look, her surprise mirroring my own. "Her dog?"

He nodded. "It was just a little bitty thing with short, little legs. Maybe part basset hound? She called him Toby. Talked to him like he was a kid. Even had him in a little sweater on cool days. Dogs in sweaters. They're born in sweaters." He shook his head at the absurdity of it.

I hadn't seen any trace of a dog living in the house. No bowls, no leashes, no dog food.

"She had a dog," I said to Irene.

She gave a slight nod, her expression bewildered.

I wondered what had happened to Toby and made a mental note to ask Lestrade about that.

"When was the last time you saw her walking the dog?" I asked.

"Well, let me see, now." Louis stared up at the sky, thinking. "I think it might have been around the 10th of the month, because I remember I had to take Lucy's home-shopping order back to the post office—she's always buying, buying, buying—and I seem to recall being told it'd be there by the following Wednesday, and that would have been—"

"The 19th," the other man cut in. "She was here on the 19th."

Irene blinked. "Are you sure about that?"

"I'm sure," he said. "She was here on the 19th. I remember because it was my wife's birthday, and I had to leave early to pick up flowers."

My pulse ticked up a notch. Kate had been there in the park the day before she'd died. I glanced at Irene, and I could tell she'd realized the significance of the date too.

"How did she look?" I asked him. "Did she seem okay on the 19th?"

He shrugged. "As good as she ever seemed."

Whatever that meant.

"Did she look sick?" Irene asked. "Nervous? Afraid?"

"I'd appreciate anything you can tell us," I added.

He glanced up from his chessboard, his expression softening. "You're concerned about your aunt. You're a good niece. Did she have the dementia?" He tapped his temple and rolled his eyes and wobbled his head back and forth.

"I don't think she had anything," I said. "In fact, I don't think she died of natural causes. I think someone must have wanted her dead."

That got their attention. They all stared up at me with slack jaws and wide eyes. But no guilty expressions, except for maybe Mr. Happy. I couldn't see his expression because his head was turned toward my great-aunt's house down the street. Did he know it was her house?

"That's why Sherlock Holmes has been hired to look into it," Irene said. "Now does anyone have any information that might be helpful to us?"

Lots of blank expressions. No one said anything.

Louis cleared his throat. "Why don't you let us think about it? Maybe we'll remember something if we talk it over. Like I said, we're here every day."

"Think about it," Irene agreed, her tone suggesting they might want to get to it. "We'll be back." She looked at me. "Come on, Marty."

"'We'll be back?'" I repeated when we were out of earshot. "What was that about?"

She grinned. "I watched Terminator last night. What a weird group, huh?"

"They knew Kate's name," I said.

"I noticed that. Albert was the only one who didn't react when you said someone had wanted Kate dead."

"He was looking at the house," I said.

"He sure was." She shook her head. "Something about him felt off, don't you think? He's the only thing in the whole park that did. Although I don't see him making enough noise from down the street to draw Kate's attention. I don't see him making enough noise from across the room to draw her attention."

"Unless that was just an excuse Kate used to get the police to come out," I said. "I could easily see Mr. Happy engaging in criminal activity of some sort."

"Yeah," Irene said. "Maybe. We just don't know enough about her."

I glanced over at the house. "For now. That may change. I think I'm going to stay here tonight."

Irene blinked. "Really? Do you think that's safe?"

I nodded. "If she was killed for something she had in the house, that something is probably gone. If she was killed for something she saw or heard or knew, well, she's gone now too. There's no reason I'd be in danger."

"I guess," she said doubtfully. "Do you want me to stay with you?"

I shook my head. "Thanks, but I'll be fine. I'll catch up with you tomorrow, okay?"

Irene glanced over her shoulder as we stepped off the curb. "Why don't you go in the back door? We have an audience, and I don't want him to know you're staying here alone if we can help it. Just in case."

I looked back to see Mr. Happy watching us. Although I was pretty sure I'd be perfectly safe staying in Kate's house overnight, a chill shimmied through me. Something about him made me very uneasy.

We made our way around the corner and up to the back of the house, where we said our good-byes, and I let myself in through the kitchen door. The place was still a dumpster fire, but it was starting to feel familiar and comfortable in its own way. I locked the door behind me and started closing blinds and drapes, pausing in the living room to peek over into the park.

The picnic tables were empty.

I couldn't help but wonder if the match had ended or if Irene and I had broken up the party with our questions.

I closed the drapes and went back to work.

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