Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 3

By: Robert Plunket

In last month’s installment, Mr. Timothy Spryke, a retired high school teacher who has moved to Sarasota and opened a decorating business named “Casual Elegance,” made a new friend, Mary Alice Wiggins, and discovered that the “stalker” who had been terrorizing him was actually a marauding raccoon when the animal attacked Mary Alice in his […]


In last month’s installment, Mr. Timothy Spryke, a retired high school teacher who has moved to Sarasota and opened a decorating business named “Casual Elegance,” made a new friend, Mary Alice Wiggins, and discovered that the “stalker” who had been terrorizing him was actually a marauding raccoon when the animal attacked Mary Alice in his bathroom. Soon after, he went to call on his next-door-neighbor, old Mr. Kneff—and discovered the old man lying dead in his garden.

 

Mary Alice Wiggins looked at her watch. She was waiting for a phone call from the Van Wezel. Usually the local performing arts hall was so prompt. They got back to her—and everyone—so quickly. But on this particular matter they were putting her through hell.  

The raccoon incident, in which a wild raccoon had attacked her in the powder room, had certainly started off Casual Elegance with a bang. The blurb in Marjorie’s column was the talk of the town, and they’d soon gotten a job at the Founders Club, staging a foreclosed mansion, and another in Prestancia, redoing the family room of an animal lover who appreciated Mr. Spyke’s concern for the raccoon and her babies.  

Mary Alice had less good will toward the raccoon, as it had left her with a tiny bald spot where the animal had pulled out a tuft of her hair. She was monitoring it closely, checking for regrowth. She could probably sue. But of course she would never do that to Mr. Srpyke. It certainly wasn’t his fault that a raccoon family had been living in his attic, and it turned out he didn’t have the right kind of insurance, anyway.  

She loved her new job—doing PR and general office work for Mr. Spryke—but ever since the murder next door, she had no desire to spend any more time at his home/office than necessary. The window in front of her desk looked out onto old Mr. Kneff’s wall, on the other side of which Mr. Spyrke had found old Mr. Kneff’s body. Every time a squirrel ran by, she flinched.  

The whole neighborhood was on edge. It was all anyone talked about. In fact, Mr. Spryke and Rick were talking about it right now, out on the verandah. She could hear them when the air conditioning allowed.  

“I still think it was a robbery,” Rick was saying. He was sitting there sprawled out in the chair, twirling his baseball cap on his forefinger. Rick was a very nice person, Mary Alice had decided, but he was limited. He was certainly not Mr. Spryke’s intellectual equal. He was not even her intellectual equal. Yet Mr. Spryke spent so much time with him. “I just don’t get it,” she said to herself, shaking her head.  

“It’s all about passion,” Mr. Spryke was saying. “This was no burglary.”  

“Passion?” said Rick. “The guy was 91 years old.”  

Mr. Spryke shook his head. “All the valuables were left untouched. They didn’t even take the plate.”  

“What plate?”  

“That’s a British expression,” explained Mr. Spryke. “It means the household silver. From the Spanish la plata.’” He gave the word a rich pronunciation and a roll of his hand.  

Oh, please, sighed Mary Alice. Give it a rest. Every clue, every theory. She was much more concerned about the security angle. There was a killer on the loose, and she, as a woman, was in danger. True, this didn’t appear to be a sex crime, but you never knew these days. She had heard that old Mr. Kneff was wearing kneepads, which had to mean something.  

And what about Mr. Spryke? They were targeting old men. Mr. Kneff had been struck on the back of his head with a sharp object—as yet undiscovered but thought to be one of a pair of vaguely Giacometti-esque andirons, one of which was missing—and left in the hot sun to die. She had thought of asking Dr. Wiggins if Mr. Spryke could stay with them for a while out in Lakewood Ranch. They had plenty of room, what with Jason and Jessica off in college. But somehow she felt that Mr. Spryke and her husband would not make good “roomies.”  

 “I’m worried about you being here alone,” Rick was saying to Mr. Spryke, and Mary Alice felt her ears burn. She didn’t like it when Rick talked like that to Mr. Spryke. His welfare was her concern. He and Rick should stick to the murder and politics and sports, although to be perfectly honest, she couldn’t see Mr. Spryke discussing sports with Rick or with anyone.  

The phone rang and she grabbed at it.  

“Mary Alice? This is Melissa at the Van Wezel.”  

“Hi,” Mary Alice said, her mouth suddenly dry.  

“Guess what?”  

“What?”  

“It’s a deal!”  

A delicious feeling of triumph ran through Mary Alice’s body. She jotted down the details, then hung up the phone. “Whoopee!” she screamed and ran out to the verandah.  

“What on earth?” said Mr. Spryke.  

“We got Tom Jones!”  

“What?”  

“Tom Jones. You’re decorating his dressing room.”  

“What?”  

“Yes! He’s at the Van Wezel next Thursday, and when the big stars come they personalize the dressing room for them. They get rugs, they get paintings. They got Liza Minnelli a full bar. And I just got you the Tom Jones gig.”  

“Does it pay anything?”  

“Are you kidding? Decorators are standing in line. Just think. You can always say, I decorated for Tom Jones.” 

I decorated for Tom Jones. Yes, there was the definite tingle of a thrill. Mr. Spryke could not exactly say that he had consciously set a goal to decorate for Tom Jones, but he set as a goal something like that, and here it was.  

A lump rose in his throat. If only his mother had lived to see it. True, she probably had no idea who Tom Jones was, but still, she had a healthy regard for a celebrity. Many was the time she described her chance encounter with June Allyson back in 1938 at an ice rink in Bemidji, Minnesota. The incident had left a deep impression. She began to do her hair like June Allyson, and to dress like her. It was a look she kept all her life. Even in her coffin, June Allyson lingered.  

“It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone,” Mary Alice sang out, and began to perform the frug.  

 “It happens every day…pom pah pomp pa pa . . . No matter what they say . . . pomp pah pomp pa pa—”  

She struck a pose and imitated the famous gyrations of her prepubescent idol.  

“Why can’t this crazy love be minnnnnnne?”  

Rick looked away. He wasn’t sure he liked any of this. Mary Alice had a bossy streak, and Mr. Spryke indulged her. Decorating a room for one night? And for no money? His father would have called them foolish and worldly, and for one of the few times in his life, he could see his father’s point.      

 

As they began working on this most important project, however, a certain order fell unto them. Each found his or her footing, and over the course of the next week the boot camp-like experience molded them into a team. In fact, Mary Alice started calling them Team Spryke, as was the custom with small Sarasota businesses.  

Mr. Spryke was their Leader and Chief Designer. It was his job to conceptualize the project, specify all the colors and materials, and give it drama and imagination. After an afternoon of intense creative concentration, he decided on a Welsh theme, as the singer was well-known for his origins in that ancient and fabled corner of Britain. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Welsh, almost uniquely among the peoples of Europe, had no tradition in the plastic arts. There was no such thing as Welsh furniture. They apparently sat on whatever was at hand.  

So Mr. Spryke went to plan B. Tom Jones was a down-to-earth man’s man who enjoyed sports and drinking, and while that sort of thing was not really Mr. Spryke’s especialite, he came up with an exciting solution—the deluxe version of “ye olde Englishe pubbe,” with a pair of distressed leather armchairs he borrowed from Robb & Stucky and a wonderful well-used dart board on loan from Shakespeare’s on Osprey. (He promised the owner he’d get Mr. Jones to sign it.)  

Research on the subject had revealed that Tom had a cocker spaniel named Roscoe, so some mid-Victorian cocker spaniel paintings were begged from Crissy Galleries. Mr. Spryke offered to get Tom Jones to sign these also—on the back, of course—but it was decided that a mid-Victorian cocker spaniel painting signed by Tom Jones might be confusing to people.  

Mary Alice was the Producer of their little enterprise. She controlled the money, she made phone calls to vendors, she scheduled, she ran countless errands. She had never worked so hard in her life, and she was loving it. And when Mr. Spryke put her in charge of the flowers—“Do whatever you want. I trust you”—it was as if she had received a promotion.

After a slow start, Rick had finally climbed onboard and was now as enthusiastic as anyone. What won him over were the logistics of the project. Everything had to be portable and installed in a 10-hour period, then taken down as soon as Tom Jones left. That meant he had to come up with ingenious solutions. He figured out a way to install panels on the walls that could be removed at will, so that they could have the effect of rich wood paneling. Since Mr. Spryke didn’t know much about actual construction, Rick found his stock rising, as the older man relied more and more on him to come up with ways to make his design dreams come true.  

Somehow it all got done. They built the pieces in Mr. Spryke’s living room and garage, and then trucked them over to the Van Wezel in Rick’s pickup, to arrive at exactly 8 a.m. on the day of the performance. This was the earliest the stagehands would let them in.  

Then they set to work. Things went wrong, of course—one of the panels wasn’t measured right, and the tablecloth for the buffet was all wrong—but when everything finally came together at approximately 11:45 that morning, they stood there, the three of them, and stared in amazement.  

“I love it!” Mary Alice exclaimed, and clasped her hands.  

“Sweet,” said Rick.  

And as for Mr. Spryke, it was too much. He felt a lump in his throat.  

At that moment, Anna Dawson, the hall manager, stuck her head in the door. “There are some policemen to see you,” she told Mr. Spryke. “I put them in my office.”  

“Oh, dear,” said Mr. Spryke. “They couldn’t have come at a worse moment.”  

It was Officer Fernandez again, with his sidekick who never said anything. Mr. Spryke rather liked Officer Fernandez. He had a shaved head, like so many young men these days, but he was intelligent and respectful. Their previous sessions had been very productive. The policeman was impressed about how much Mr. Spryke knew about his deceased neighbor; but then, he had no idea that Mr. Spryke had been obsessively spying on the guy.  

“Any chance we can talk later?” Mr. Spryke asked. “I have a show tonight.” He liked the way that sounded—I have a show tonight.  

“Just one question,” Officer Fernandez said.  

“Shoot.”  

“How well do you know Rick Yoder?”  

Mary Alice stood in the main foyer of the Van Wezel that evening at 7:45, dressed in her St. John suit, the one she’d gotten at Designing Women consignment shop for $100. It was her favorite outfit; she suspected it had a rich and romantic past. It may very well have originally belonged to Katherine Harris, as she had found a cocktail napkin from the White House secreted in a pocket.  

This was her best night out in years. Third row center, courtesy of the Van Wezel, with Mr. Spryke at his most dapper, plus an invite to the party afterward in the Green Room. She patted her hair for the umpteeth time and surveyed the crowd in the lobby.  

It seemed everybody in town was there. She recognized so many familiar faces—some of them from Marjorie’s column, others from having their pictures in the paper or appearing on TV. Marcia Kramer, who taught the tango to at-risk youth, was chatting with John Scalzi, the TV weatherman. A group of trophy wives from Lido Shores was laughing up a storm, which hit a crescendo when Janis Collier opened her Vuitton bag and passed out panties they could all throw on stage. And there was Donald Geike, the sexy British realtor whom she once had a little crush on. He was with that other realtor, Rob Dardas, whom she’d seen just last Saturday at the Y as he climbed out of the lap pool in a pair of tight yellow Speedos…  

“Penny for your thoughts,” said Mr. Spryke, as he and Rick approached. Her boss had outdone himself: a navy blazer with a coat of arms on the breast pocket, gray flannels with a razor pleat, and a Hermes tie he found at a garage sale for 25 cents. Rick looked like, well, Rick.  

“Guess what?” he continued. “Anna Dawson told me he loves the dressing room.”  

“Yippee!” said Mary Alice, jumping up and down.  

They took their seats amid the chattering crowd. But in spite of the electric atmosphere, Mary Alice was uneasy. By the time they got settled in, she knew something was wrong. She could feel it in Mr. Spryke’s demeanor. She knew him well enough to know when something was wrong, and something was wrong.  

Finally Mr. Spryke, who had lapsed into silence, cleared his throat. “I just want to thank both of you,” he said. “The dressing room looks beautiful. Everything about it. The furniture. The colors. The construction.”  

“The flowers,” said Rick.  

Mr. Spryke shot him a look, and the lights went down. The music began, that strong, driving beat that begins It’s Not Unusual. “Woo-hoo,” called out one of the trophy wives.  

Mary Alice sat there in the darkness, perplexed. What was that all about? Was there something wrong with the flowers? Had Rick been making fun of the flowers? Had Mr. Spryke?  

Tom Jones came out, and the crowd went wild. He was looking particularly flashy tonight, with a piece of bling against his hairy chest, and a big gold and diamond wrist watch. He sang all his hits. Delilah. What’s New Pussycat? She’s a Lady.  

Mary Alice wished she could enjoy herself more. Tom Jones had been her first rock star crush. Something about the way he moved his hips, and the deep timbre of his voice—it stirred the fire within her. In fact, it originally lit the fire, back at age 11. But tonight, finally seeing him in person—all she could think was, what about the flowers?  

 

Mary Alice was not the only one who had trouble enjoying herself. Mr. Spryke sat there listening to Tom Jones, but his mind kept wandering back to his meeting that afternoon with Officer Fernandez.  

It turned out it had been a robbery. An inventory of the house showed that a valuable painting was missing, plus some circus memorabilia. High-end stuff, like a fan letter written to old Mr. Kneff from Shirley Temple. A pair of mittens that belonged to Annie Oakley.  

But it was the questions about Rick that caused Mr. Spryke the most concern. “You’re barking up the wrong tree,” he had told the cop. “He had nothing to do with this. I can vouch for him. He’s a Mennonite.”  

“Maybe so,” Officer Fernandez said. “But he’s a Mennonite who’s underwater in three rental properties in Sarasota Springs.”  

“I don’t even know what that means.”  

“It means he needs money.”  

Mr. Spryke would have none of this theory. But try as he might, he couldn’t seem to convince Officer Fernandez. The guy was relentless. All afternoon he had been thinking over their unpleasant exchange, and had come to the conclusion that his “friend” Officer Fernandez might be jumping to all the wrong conclusions.
 

 Mr. Spyrke studied Rick out of the corner of his eye. It was tricky, but years of teaching high school had given him the peripheral vision of a wall-eyed pike. He was not perfect, this Rick Yoder. Far from it. He was a dreamer, he didn’t understand the way the world worked, he bought too many lottery tickets. And he could be surprisingly insensitive. Bringing up the flowers, for instance. Yes, Mr. Spryke hated Mary Alice’s choice. Hydrangeas, for heaven’s sake. In a room like that. So feminine, so inappropriate.  

But why even bring it up? It was all done, past, history. Tom Jones would not even notice.  

And now poor Rick was a murder suspect. “The very idea,” Mr. Spryke whispered under his breath. He must make sure that Rick never found out about this. It would break his heart.  

Everybody, it seemed, wanted to go to the after-party, and everybody, it seemed, did. The Green Room was packed, and Mary Alice, who knew most of the town by sight, pointed out some of the more notable partiers. Jake Jacobson, the funny guy on the radio, was there with Carolyn Michel. (He had been running a radio promotion to win free tickets.) And so was Ken Shelin from the City Commission, here to present the key to the city. There were also some British people who claimed to be cousins of Mr. Jones from Llangernyw and a clan of gypsies who ran the palm reading parlor over on 17th Street . Nobody could figure out how they got in, and security had to be called.  

Mr. Jones, as everyone called him, arrived at the very peak of the festivities, or rather, his arrival was the very peak of the festivities. A cheer went up and flashes went off; cell phones came out to record the moment. He was dressed in sweats and had a towel around his neck. All the bling was gone.

Up close he looked older, Mr. Spyke noted, but don’t we all? His face was lined, and the lean body had filled out considerably. The eyes didn’t look quite right. “Has he had work done?” Mr. Spryke whispered to Mary Alice.  

She didn’t hear him. She just stared at Tom Jones.  

Team Spryke waited until the knot of people surrounding the star thinned a little, and then they pressed forward. After Tom Jones finally managed to shake off Cliff Roles, they each introduced themselves and shook hands, while Mr. Spryke explained how honored they were to have the honor of decorating the dressing room and what an honor it was.  

“How did you know I fancy hydrangeas so?” Tom Jones asked.  

Mr. Spryke stared at him. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.  

Rick jumped in to rescue him. “It was her,” he said, pointing to Mary Alice.  

“Then how’s about I thank you nice and proper,” Tom Jones said, and he grabbed her and swung her backward and planted his mouth on hers. Later, Mary Alice would report that yes, he used tongue, and that it tasted rather thrillingly like a martini. But that was in the future. For now she let out a low moan and then shivered slightly from head to toe.  

Mr. Spryke steadied her, and the men led her over to the food. They savored their triumph and chatted with the various stagehands they had met during the course of the day. Then Mr. Spyke realized something. He hadn’t taken pictures. The project had not been documented.  

He went back to Mr. Jones and asked permission. “Shoot ahead, mate,” he was told. He looked around for Mary Alice. She was beginning a big plate of shrimp. So he looked around for Rick. But Rick seemed to have disappeared. Oh, well, he would do it himself. He didn’t mind. In fact, being alone in his beautiful room for a moment sounded good. He needed to commune with his success, to glory in the moment.  

But he wasn’t going to be alone. Rick was in the dressing room. Mr. Spryke opened the door and there he was, standing by the vanity. Their eyes met in the mirror. Then Mr. Spryke’s attention traveled downward, to Rick’s hand, which was putting all of Mr. Jones’ bling into his pocket.