Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 2

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In last month’s installment, Mr. Timothy Spryke, a retired high school teacher, moved to Sarasota to pursue his longtime dream of opening a decorating business. In that chapter, he found the perfect house, a little Spanish place near downtown, hired a handyman, young Rick Yoder, and was happily settling into his new life—until one evening […]


In last month’s installment, Mr. Timothy Spryke, a retired high school teacher, moved to Sarasota to pursue his longtime dream of opening a decorating business. In that chapter, he found the perfect house, a little Spanish place near downtown, hired a handyman, young Rick Yoder, and was happily settling into his new life—until one evening he realized an intruder had been in his home and moved his silver bill caddy from its accustomed spot.    

The next morning Mr. Spryke was still rattled. He barely slept, and when he did, vivid dreams overtook him. They were colored with black and red skies, and he was being chased by a man who looked like Alan Greenspan.

At dawn he was wide awake and lying in bed. Only one thought occupied his mind. Who could have moved his bill caddy?

He reviewed his day. Rick had come over around nine. Could it have been him? No, Mr. Spryke had never let Rick out of his sight. Not for security reasons; he just liked the way Rick squinted at the tape measure. It was very endearing. So he watched him constantly, out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to do it again.

After Rick left he had had a can of tuna for lunch, with plenty of mayonnaise (his favorite guilty pleasure) and then took a short nap. Then—then what? Oh, yes—he worked on his receipts, a very onerous task, as he wasn’t quite sure what was a personal expense and what was a business expense, and sometimes it took him a while to come up with ways to turn them all into business expenses.   

The only time he had left the house was between four and six. He had gone to Sarasota Carpet Cleaning with his Chinese rug and then swung by Wendy’s for an early dinner. If you stuck to the salads it was really quite nutritious, and the senior discount made it a bargain.

That’s when it must have happened. Some time between four and six.

What else did the intruder or intruders do while snooping around his house? What had they discovered? Did they look in his sock drawer? Did they find his thong? Why had he ever bought that thing? He knew it would get him in trouble. He put it on once, looked in the mirror, screamed, and never wore it again.

An even worse thought occurred to him. Had they stolen anything? He jumped out of bed and went through the house. Sure enough, there was something missing: a small, sentimental religious picture that belonged to his mother. His worry crystallized into anger. “How dare they,” he hissed. “My mother’s religious picture,” and when he found the picture in the next room, even that didn’t calm him down. He felt more violated than ever.

He paced the living room and tried to apply some common sense to the problem. First of all, the doors had been locked. This meant the person had a key. And who could have a key? Actually, a million people could have a key, since one of his small economies was not changing the locks when he moved in.

But this was not a robbery. That much had been proven. He had an enemy. Well, maybe not an enemy exactly, but certainly someone who was so obsessed with him that they were spying on him and going through his financial records.

Or was he imagining the whole thing? Was it some early warning sign of Alzheimer’s? Had he moved the bill caddy and completely forgotten?

Possible. But in his heart he knew he hadn’t .He had a stalker. And Mr. Spryke knew all about stalkers. He had taught high school for 35 years.

He peered out his French doors. Could it be one of the neighbors?

The Shark Man’s wife immediately came to mind. But she was shoved aside by old Mr. Kneff as a much more likely possibility. He may have been over 90, but he was in amazing shape. Mr. Spryke had seen into his rear patio once, when he’d been up on his own roof. There was old Mr. Kneff, down on his knees and doing some gardening. He was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and kneepads. His tobacco-colored body was that of a 70-year-old.

The famous finger with which he dazzled the world was hidden by gardening gloves. But Mr. Spryke could see into the house, into a study-type room, full of books, surprisingly tasteful for a circus performer. There was a big framed poster on the wall, in the style of Norman Rockwell. It showed a man in white tie and tails standing on his right forefinger, before a mesmerized pair of little boys who are peering in through a flap in the tent.

Mr. Spryke shivered. If Mr. Kneff could stand on his finger, he could certainly break into a house.

There he was! Mr. Spryke watched as old Mr. Kneff sauntered out his gate. At 6 in the morning! His chest was bare, but he had on the pair of khaki shorts. He was holding a rake and began to scoop leaves out of the gutter. Every once in a while he would pause and survey the neighborhood. He would look this way and that, a secret smile on his face, and then get back to work.

Never once did he look in Mr. Spryke’s direction. “Cool as a cucumber,” thought Mr. Spryke. “Cool as a cucumber.”  

But the stalker was just one item on Mr. Spryke’s increasingly crowded plate. He had a business to open. In fact, with the renovations in their final stages, he no longer had an excuse not to open.

He only needed one thing. Customers.

Mr. Spryke had been doing his research, and he had discovered that one of the most important tools in developing a business was something called “networking.” That meant you sought out other people who were flailing around and desperately needed business, and then you gave them your business card and they would give you theirs. They might even refer you to other people, maybe even their clients, so if one of them—an accountant, say—had a client who was a dentist, and the dentist needed his waiting room redecorated (not that Mr. Spryke would be decorating too many dentists’ waiting rooms, thank you very much) then the accountant would tell the dentist, “I know a fabulous decorator” (maybe not in those exact words) and Mr. Spryke would have a job.

So when he came across a listing online, on a Web site called This Week In Sarasota, announcing that a business card exchange would take place that Friday after work, he immediately made plans to go. The notice said “newcomers especially welcome,” which was very encouraging, and added that there would be prizes. He wondered if that meant they would give prizes for the business cards themselves. That would be almost too good to be true, as his card—his new card— was nothing if not a prize winner.

He studied it on his dresser as he arranged his hair.

This was Mr. Spryke’s first foray into the Sarasota social scene, if you didn’t count the crafts fair on Siesta Key or the Democratic fund raiser where the air-conditioning went out. He wanted to arrive on time, but he had not taken parking into account, and by the time he ran up to the restaurant, a tapas place called Ceviche, he was 20 minutes late.

The party was in a room at the back, behind the bar. At the entrance was a young woman in a blue silk blouse, sitting behind a table. She had blond hair and long legs and looked up at Mr. Spryke as he approached, panting. He gave her a smile, which she didn’t return.

That’s not very welcoming, thought Mr. Spryke as he took out a $10 bill. All the proceeds, a sign on the table announced, were going to a charity that granted last wishes to dying children.

The woman said something to him that he couldn’t quite understand. He cupped his ear and asked her to repeat it, and she did and he didn’t understand her this time, either, although it might have been, “Do you know where you are?”

He decided he didn’t care for her attitude, so he nodded confidently and gave her what he hoped was a haughty smile. She shrugged and took his $10. Then she held out her hand, and said something. It was as if she wanted something put in her hand. Mr. Spryke was totally mystified. He’d already given her the $10. He looked at her, helpless, until she finally grabbed his wrist and stamped it.

Once inside, it took him a moment to catch his breath, and when started to look around, he got the feeling that something wasn’t quite kosher. The place was very crowded, and the first group of people he noticed chatting and laughing seemed awfully young to have business cards. So did the second group. So did the third. His eyes were then drawn to a banner hung on the wall. “The Young Professional Group,” it said. “Youth and Business United to Serve.”

Mr. Spryke wanted to roll up in a ball and die. But since that wasn’t likely to happen, he had to get out of there as quickly as possible, and without attracting any further attention. This seemed feasible, as no one had looked at him the whole time. No one had so much as glanced his way. It was almost like the young professionals had some sort of built-in radar, and when their glance got too close to anyone not in their demographic, it hit an invisible shield and bounced away.

There was just one problem. That woman at the door. She would see him leave, and he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. So he settled in a dark corner at one end of the bar, where he could see her through the crowd. The minute she left her post he would make his move.

“I guess we’re the old fogies tonight.”

Mr. Spryke turned to see a pleasant-looking woman in her mid 40s.

“Me, perhaps. But certainly not you,” he replied gallantly. “You blend in seamlessly.”

The woman put a hand to her mouth and laughed.

“Mary Alice Wiggins,” she said. “I work at Ringling College.”

“Ah. An art professor?”

She giggled again. “No, just silly old PR.”

“Really?” said Mr. Spryke, and gave her hand a warm squeeze.
 
After chatting for a minute or two, it was clear that they were getting along like gangbusters, so it seemed only natural that they should go out to the lobby to chat some more. It was much quieter out there, and there were chairs. He didn’t mind the young woman in the blue blouse now. He wanted her to see. He paraded his catch right before her.

Mary Alice had a round face and blond hair a little too curly, but she and Mr. Spryke had an instant rapport. True, her job wasn’t quite as important as it seemed at first, as she only worked part-time. “The Governor cut my funding,” she said. But she had the comfortable look of someone who had been well-treated by life. Her gold Rolex and diamond ring spoke volumes. And when she mentioned that her husband was a dentist—

“Does he need his waiting room redecorated?” Mr. Spryke asked.

“Oh, I already did it. Plaids and Audubon prints.”

“Good choice.”

“But tell me about your business,” Mary Alice said.

“I open next week,” he said and pulled out his business card.

“Oh, my,” she said with a gasp. “It’s gorgeous.”

“Isn’t it?”

“I love the little bouquet.”

“Me, too! It wouldn’t work without the little bouquet.”

For a while they discussed flowers, which ones they liked and which ones they didn’t. This somehow led to the merits of wallpaper, and then to Bill Blass vs. Oscar de la Renta and then Architectural Digest and how you really couldn’t live in any of those houses.

“Has your work ever been published?” Mary Alice asked.

“Not really,” said Mr. Spryke, meaning “not at all.” But an idea was forming in his mind. His beautiful new home/office was just about completed—and ready to be photographed. . . .

“Tell me,” he asked Mary Alice. “What do you know about Sarasota Magazine?”

“Forget it. It’s all ads.”

“What about SRO?”

“You mean SRQ? I’ll show you what SRQ is.” She pointed at the party. “That’s SRQ."

“Oh, dear.”

“No, there’s only one thing that really works in this town, publicity wise.”

“And what’s that?”

“A mention in Marjorie’s column.”

“But isn’t she retiring?”

“Yes! That makes it even more crucial. Everybody’s reading her now. The countdown has started.”

Mr. Spryke’s eyes lit up. Marjorie North’s column in the Herald-Tribune had become his favorite reading material. On one hand it was nothing extraordinary. A small-town social column, written in an enthusiastic tone. But between the lines, Mr. Spryke saw the Sarasota he wished to be a part of. The parties, the millionaires, the comings and goings, from Martha’s Vineyard to the South of France to Beverly Hills.

“Can you get me in?”

She looked at him cautiously. “Maybe. We’d have to have the right angle.”

“The right angle?”

“You’d have to do something newsworthy.”

Cheering erupted from the Young Professional Group as Amie Swan won a day of beauty at The Met.. But Mr. Spryke and Mary Alice didn’t notice. They were both lost in their own world, trying to think of something newsworthy Mr. Spryke could do.

Mr. Spryke decided to take Rick into his confidence regarding the stalker situation. Perhaps they could figure out a way to catch him. It would be their first project together. They could plan strategy, research surveillance equipment, enjoy the camaraderie of the veranda.

There was a spot in his living room where Mr. Spryke could sit in the shadows, yet have a perfect view out to Mr. Kneff’s gate, and Mr. Spryke found himself spending much of his time there. Not that there was much to see. The old man rarely left his house and didn’t have many visitors. But one day there was a flurry of activity. A young woman drove up in a white Mercedes. Mr. Spryke held his breath during the 10 minutes she was inside. His eyes never left the gate. Finally she hurried out, a scowl on her face, sans any sign of Mr. Kneff. She jumped into her car and drove off.
"Isn’t that odd,” thought Mr. Spryke.

But not as odd as old Mr. Kneff’s next two visitors. Later that same afternoon, two men appeared at the gate. One was black and one was white. Mr. Spryke immediately knew they were up to something. They were just a little too formally dressed for Sarasota. And why weren’t they at work in the middle of the day? And what was in that briefcase?

Old Mr. Kneff appeared at the gate. There was a very short conversation, which Mr. Spryke could not quite hear. The two men turned away, as if rebuffed. Then Mr. Spryke watched in horror as they came over to his house. They rang the doorbell, which he answered with his heart thumping in his chest.

“Would you like to find out more about Jesus?” one of them said, handing him a copy of The Watchtower.

Rick was due at six, right after he finished painting the pump house over at his church, and Mr. Spryke was preparing for their meeting. But first, at 4 p.m., he had an equally pleasant treat in store. Mary Alice Wiggins was coming for what she referred to as a “brainstorming session.” Mr. Spryke, with the rules of hospitality deeply engrained in him by his mother, decided to turn it into a tea party.
 
He lay out the treats in his kitchen. Little coconut cakes from Morton’s, along with a scoop of salmon salad for each of them, with a selection of chocolate truffles, plus a pot of tea and a pitcher of lemonade. He put everything on his tea cart—such a handy piece of furniture—and wheeled it out to the living room.

He checked his watch. Five minutes.

Meeting Mary Alice had certainly been a stroke of luck. She was his favorite type of woman. High schools employed many of them—calm, unfailingly pleasant, fair-minded, unambitious, always putting husband and children first.  Mary Alice was the upscale version, with a particular interest in the arts and what’s going on in fashion and home design. She dressed with good taste, nothing flashy, and she was kind and liberal in her outlook, with a good education and a certain amount of breeding. There was not an ounce of vulgarity in her—

What on earth is that, thought Mr. Spryke, noticing something on the floor over by his desk. He walked over and picked it up. It was his swatch book. How had it gotten on the floor? Oh, my God, he thought. The stalker.

The doorbell rang, and he went to greet Mary Alice.

“These are for you,” she said, holding out a basket of figs.

He looked at them blankly.

“Are you OK?”

Mr. Spryke pulled himself together. He might be in the middle of a stalking crisis, but right now he had a visitor to entertain. He would do what his mother would do—turn into the most perfect hostess (or host) imaginable.

“Come in, come in,” he said and took the figs. “Oh, my, don’t these look delicious.”

Mary Alice was already surveying the living room. “Oh, my goodness,” she exclaimed, clasping her hands. “This is adorable.”  

Mr. Spryke was so pleased with her reaction that he took her on a tour of the principal rooms and commented on almost every chair, lamp, vase, box and candlestick that they passed, explaining exactly what it was and where he had gotten it and how much it had cost.

And everything had a story. The Dunbar sofa he found in a thrift store, the lamp shades custom made by a place in Gulf Gate, and that coat of arms, the Spryke family crest, which his mother had sent away for. By the time they settled on the sofa for their tea, he realized her head must be swimming with information.

“But enough about me,” said Mr. Spryke. “Let’s talk about our friend Ms. North.”

Mary Alice had come prepared. She took a pad from her bag (Chanel, her very best) and consulted it.

“I’ve put together some ideas that we may want to pursue. Let me run them by you.”

“Good,” said Mr.  Spryke, settling in and concentrating.

“The Make a Wish Foundation,” she began.

“Make a wish?”

“Remember? The Young Professionals?”

“Yes, I remember. But what do I do for them?”

“You decorate a room for a dying child.”

Mr. Spryke slowly reached over and picked up a truffle. He didn’t want a truffle; he was stalling for time. This was the worst idea he had ever heard. It was so bad on every possible level he was amazed. First of all, what dying child is going to waste his wish on getting his room redecorated? They wanted to go to Disney World or meet Miley Cyrus. The last thing that would occur to them was to get their room redecorated. Oh, he suspected that a smart adult could probably use undue influence and persuade some weak-minded child, his judgment clouded by disease, that what he really wanted more than anything was to get his room redecorated, but to even think of doing that to a dying child–

“I like it,” he said. “Got any others?”

She did, and described them. He would give talks on decorating at Plymouth Harbor, the upscale nursing home. He would decorate the room of a homecoming soldier, completely gratis. “We’ll try and get somebody injured,” she emphasized. Or he could enroll, amidst much fanfare, at Ringling College of Art and Design as the country’s oldest interior design student.

Mr. Spryke listened, his heart sinking. Mary Alice was a nice person, but these ideas . . . They were so self-promoting. He wanted it to be about the work, not about him. Not these gimmicks.

“We must position you as a star,” Mary Alice said. “Not a worker bee.”

“What’s a worker bee?”

“The volunteer who addresses the envelopes. The poor woman who sets up the silent auction.”

She froze ever so slightly, then averted her gaze. “I am a worker bee. That’s what Marjorie once called me. In print. She said, and I quote—‘and special thanks to Mary Alice Wiggins, the queen of the worker bees.’ Oh, she meant it as a compliment. But to be declared the ultimate nobody, the queen of the nobodies. You can’t let it happen to you.”

“Well, maybe you could still become . . . somebody.”

“No, I’m damaged goods. But you—you at least have a future.”

She sat back and sadly took a sip of tea. “Can I use your bathroom?”

“Certainly. It’s down the hall on the left.”

Mr. Spryke sighed as he watched Mary Alice leave the room. She was such a nice person, perhaps a little too nice. Too sensitive. His mother was often like that–

A blood-curdling scream rent the air. Then a pause, then another scream, even worse. He ran to the bathroom and flung open the door.

Mary Alice was in the corner, crouching, her back turned toward him. And on her back was a raccoon.

Its feet were dug into her body. Its paws were in her hair, pulling her head back.

“Get this fucking animal off me!” she screamed.

Mr. Spryke, who could display real physical courage, particularly when women and children were in jeopardy, grabbed the raccoon and tossed it in the bathtub. The animal bared its fangs and made a hissing noise. Mr. Spryke and Mary Alice scrambled to get out of the bathroom and there was a logjam at the doorway, until Mr. Spryke remembered his manners and shoved Mary Alice ahead of him. Once in the hallway, Mr. Spryke debated whether to try and shut the door in order to trap the animal. He peeked in to assay the situation and watched in surprise as the raccoon clambered on top of the toilet, scurried up a pipe and disappeared into a tiny hole in the ceiling where the air-conditioning duct had just been installed.

“So there goes my stalker,” thought Mr. Spryke. “My first Sarasota mystery solved.”

Nobody was sure exactly how Marjorie found out about the raccoon incident, but there it was, the lead item in her Sunday column. It was mostly about Mary Alice, of course, and how her injuries were minor and how she didn’t have rabies.

But there was also one good solid paragraph about Mr. Spryke. Marjorie described him as “the new decorator in town” and gave the name of his business and praised him for insisting that the raccoon and her eight babies, who were living in his attic, not be destroyed but relocated in the wild, out past Gator Creek Country Club.

Mr. Spryke was humbled by his good fortune. He felt he’d learned an important lesson, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was. Intruders don’t have to be human? Don’t jump to conclusions? Make sure the a/c grills are properly installed?

One thing was certain. He had to make friends with old Mr. Kneff . He didn’t want any more misunderstandings, of any sort. And since Mr. Kneff was obviously not going to welcome him to the neighborhood, he would have to abandon protocol and take the initiative himself.

So when he received a bottle of rather good wine from Mary Alice as a token of appreciation for rescuing her and a celebration of their media coup, he knew exactly what he would do with it. He could just picture himself showing up next door, brandishing the bottle and calling out, “Howdy, neighbor. How about a little break from the day’s routine?” or words to that effect.

The next afternoon Mr. Spryke noticed that his neighbor’s gate was open. This usually signaled that the old man was working in his garden—or at least at home, for he locked it each time he went out, in the European fashion.

Mr. Spryke grabbed the wine from the refrigerator and headed over. He debated about ringing the doorbell, as Mr. Kneff was most likely out back, gardening in the patio. But after two or three rings, what with the gate wide open, he ventured inside a foot or two.

“Hello?” he called out.

Mr. Kneff’s house was unusual. It was the only house in the neighborhood with a high wall around it, and the enclosed garden was heavily planted with trees and tropical shrubs. The house itself dated back to the 1920s, but it was twice as big as Mr. Spryke’s modest bungalow. It was vaguely Spanish or rather Mexican, and it would have been at home in Cuernavaca. The walls were old and streaked and hadn’t been painted in decades.
 
Calling “Hello?” at regular intervals, Mr. Spryke made his way around the side of the house. Mr. Kneff didn’t seem to be anywhere, and he had no idea what to do now, until he got within sight of the patio. Mr. Kneff was there, all right, but he was lying on the ground in his khaki shorts. His eyes were open, and Mr. Spryke knew at once that he was dead.

You can read the next installment of Decorating Can Be Murder in our January issue. 

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