Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 4

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,” got a plum assignment—decorating singer Tom Jones’ dressing room at the Van Wezel. But just when he and his team, which includes assistant Mary Alice Wiggins and carpenter Rick Yoder, […]


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,” got a plum assignment—decorating singer Tom Jones’ dressing room at the Van Wezel. But just when he and his team, which includes assistant Mary Alice Wiggins and carpenter Rick Yoder, were celebrating after the show, Mr. Spryke received a terrible shock.

Mr. Spryke stood in the living room doorway watching Rick asleep on the sofa. The house was quiet. It was just getting light out and he usually had the TV on, with Ken Jefferson from Channel 7 keeping him company in the background. But not today. There was only the sound of Rick, snoring softly.    

What a night it had been. Mr. Spryke still shuddered when he recalled the moment he walked in on Rick in the star dressing room at the Van Wezel. There he was, caught in the act of stuffing all of Tom Jones’ jewelry into the pocket of his best slacks. Mr. Spryke froze in shock and so did Rick. Neither said a word.

Then, suddenly, a sound from down the hall. Mr. Spryke had but an instant to make a decision. Should he scream for help and turn the crook in? Or bide his time? He looked at Rick with fury in his eyes. How dare he pull a trick like this? How dare he betray him? But then he slipped into the room. A silent bargain had been struck. They would wait. First they would finish the job they had been hired to do. Or volunteered to do, which in Sarasota is so often the case.

It was a horrible hour and 15 minutes. Mr. Spryke was seething with anger that he made little effort to conceal. Rick was the picture of guilt and abject humiliation. Mary Alice popped in to help, but she was so excited from kissing her idol that she kept dropping things and was soon sent home.

Finally they were done. The cocker spaniel paintings were carefully wrapped in blankets and placed in the back seat of Mr. Spryke’s car. The two men stood there in the parking lot, shifting their weight, unable to look at each other.

“We have to talk,” Mr. Spryke said at last. They went over to his house. He let Rick drive the truck by himself, even though he could have taken off and headed for Indiana. Mr. Spryke knew he wouldn’t, and he didn’t. 

Mr. Spryke turned on some lights and sat Rick down on the couch. He debated a minute. Should he offer him a beer? He hated to the look on Rick’s face, the contorted features of a man about to cry.

“I swear to God I never did anything like that before,” Rick said.

“Oh, cut the crap,” said Mr. Spryke. “I taught high school for 35 years. And I know that when you say you never did anything like that before, what you mean is you never did anything like that before and got caught.”

“No, really. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought they’d blame it on the gypsies.” 

“Oh, my God. You are worse than I thought.”

“I’m an awful person,” Rick wailed as the dam burst and he began to sob.

Mr. Spryke stared at him.

“Tell me something. Did you have anything, anything at all, to do with old Mr. Kneff?”

Rick looked at him, the sobbing suddenly on hold. “You don’t think that, do you?”

“I don’t. But the police do.”

“Oh, God.” Rick was beyond crying now. He flung his head back and made keening sounds. Then he looked at Mr. Spryke. “Can I tell you what happened?”

“I know what happened. I caught you stealing. Are you a drug addict?”

“No.”

“Are you a compulsive gambler?”

“No.”

“Then what is your problem?”

Rick let out a little whimper. “Real estate.”

“Real estate?” said Mr. Spryke.

Rick looked across the room. “I’ll never forget my first flip,” he began. “I was 23 and looking for my place in the world. I had to get out from under my father—it was, like, finally becoming my own man. You know what I mean?”

Mr. Spryke did indeed. He had a similar problem with his mother.

“And it was so exciting. Such a rush. Finding the property. Looking at all of them in the MLS and then finally coming across the perfect one. The one with all the elements. The right neighborhood. Two full baths. A kitchen where you didn’t have to tear down walls.

“Then the excitement of working on it. With your very own hands. Oh, the decisions that had to be made. Colors. Hardware. Sometimes I’d bring the boys over. They loved to help. Not that they could really do anything, but they loved to be with Daddy, helping. And that’s why I was doing it. For them.”

He paused and looked down at his hands.

“Especially for Travis.”

Mr. Spryke coughed away the lump in his throat. He’d met Travis, of course. He was five and something was wrong with him. Brain damage, or something like that. He had to wear a helmet when he played.

“I did good. Three houses in Sarasota Springs. Two more in the Meadows. Then— jackpot. The big score. This guy told me about some condos in Magnolia Oaks. Ten of them. The problem was, you had to pay cash. So I did. I broke my cardinal rule. I paid cash.”

“You had that much cash?”

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean, sort of?”

“Travis did. In his trust fund. From the insurance settlement.”

“You mean, you used Travis’ money?”

“Yeah. ‘Til I lost it.”

“Oh, my Lord.”

Now it was 8 a.m. and Rick was still there. He had described all the dealings with the bank and the various lenders, and how things had gotten worse and worse, and finally he had fallen asleep.

Mr. Spryke looked out his window, onto the verandah and the street beyond. What was he going to do? He could lend Rick some money, but certainly not enough to get him out of trouble. He just didn’t have that much.

A police car drove by, and Mr. Spryke was startled to see it stop at old Mr. Kneff’s house next door, where the murder took place. Officer Fernandez and his partner got out. They went through a bunch of keys, looking for the right one to unlock the gate.

Mr. Spryke drew back into the shadows. What on earth were they doing here?

He watched as Officer Fernandez fiddled with the keys. Then he seemed to notice something. Mr. Spryke followed the policeman’s gaze. It went to Rick’s truck, parked in his driveway. The cop walked over. He stared at it, then pulled a notebook from his pocket and wrote something down.

 

                                               

 

 

Sarasota, so full of promise when he had arrived, was turning into a quagmire. There was this murder business, which had been rather exciting at first but was now a source of anxiety and dread. There were Rick’s financial problems, which seemed to Mr. Spryke to be insoluble. What on earth was the poor guy going to do? He needed a bailout worse than GM.  

And now there was this unpleasant economic downturn. Where was the business? That was the question the whole town was asking. It was as if everybody had suddenly stopped spending money. Mr. Spryke drove down Main Street at night and looked into the empty restaurants. At the mall the salespeople stared at the door, praying for somebody to walk in. And at Casual Elegance, the phone hadn’t rung in weeks.

He certainly wasn’t going to survive on the jobs he was working on now. Take today, for example. He was off for an initial consultation with a new client, and she worked for the Herald-Tribune. That fact alone raised all sorts of red flags, as the Herald-Tribune had laid off 100 employees and sold its TV station, SNN, for less than the value of the equipment—or so everyone said—and was now in the process of subletting half of its fancy new building to a firm of bankruptcy lawyers.

But you never knew in the decorating business. Magda Barlow might well have a trust fund. She might have a rich boyfriend. Mr. Spryke knew she didn’t have a rich husband, because Mary Alice had happily filled him in on what happened last year when Magda’s husband ran off with Betsy Becker, the discount realtor up in Palmetto.

Given Magda’s position as crafts editor and part-time drama critic when Jay Handelman’s allergies were acting up, Mr. Spryke was expecting the Barlow residence to be a little cottage in the woods with flowers in the windowbox and a rose-covered trellis. But what he found himself pulling up in front of was a biggish, newish, sluggish Spanish Med in the $500,000 range. Not very crafty, he thought to himself, walking up the pavers through some seriously overgrown grass. 

Magda, who answered the door while his finger was still on the button, was everything you expected in a crafts editor. Short and roundish, she wore a multi-colored caftan with an ethnic feeling and a necklace of big red beads. Her hair was a dramatic shade of gray and arranged in such a way that one was reminded of the Bride of Frankenstein. 

 

“You’re late,” she said in an agitated tone. 

“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Spryke, looking at his watch. It was 3:04. What was her problem?

She led him through the living room, then the dining room, then out to a lanai. Mr. Spryke was a bit shocked. The place looked half-moved-into. Boxes were everywhere, the furniture was arranged haphazardly, and the dinning room table was covered with Lladro figurines, which Mary Alice had told him Magda sold on Ebay.

“It’s just that I have a staff meeting at four.”

“Staff meeting?”

“Down at the paper. At the last meeting they announced 15 layoffs.”

“Oh, dear.”

“I’m not worried,” she said with an unconvincing laugh. “I’ve been there 30 years. Besides, they tell you first. They just don’t spring it on you at the meeting. They invite you in for a very proper meeting with the publisher.”

“I see,” said Mr. Spryke.

“So let’s cut to the chase. What I want to do is fix this place up to sell it. My husband—my ex-husband—and I bought it for an investment. But we need to get out. Right now.”

Mr. Spryke looked into the living room and dining room. The paint job was awful, and the few pieces of furniture visible through the stacks of boxes were second-rate and shabby.

“Do you mean empty or staged?”

“Staged, of course. I have furniture, as you can see.”

“Gee,” said Mr. Spryke, stalling for time. Getting this place in shape would be a nightmare.

“Just give me a ball park.”

“Gee . . . well . . .”

“What can you do for $900?”

Mr. Spryke tried to live his life according to Christian principles, not so much to get into heaven but to be a good person He firmly believed in the Biblical precept of “Love thy neighbor.” But the Bible also tells us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven, and the more he thought about it he knew that this, clearly, was a time to refrain from embracing a Herald-Tribune employee with financial problems. He would not be snookered into this deal, and that was that.

“No, that’s impossible.”

“OK, what’s the least you could do it for?”

Mr. Spryke looked around once more. Actually, once you got past the shock of all the clutter it wasn’t that bad.

“Oh, say, $3,000.”

“How about $2,000?”

“No.”

“How about $2,500?”

Mr. Spryke hesitated. If they stored the boxes in the garage . . . if they used the right accent pieces . . . And as for the painting, he and Rick could do it themselves. He liked to paint. He found it therapeutic. And doing it with Rick would be fun—

The phone rang. It was in the next room, on the granite pass-through into the kitchen. The sound was loud and sharp.

They both looked at it. It rang again. Then a voice came on.

“Hi, Magda. This is Shirley from the publisher’s office. Do you think you could drop in before the meeting? Diane wants to have a word with you. I know it’s short notice, but if you possibly can . . .”

Mr. Spryke looked at Magda. The blood was draining from her face. She stared at her Lladro figurines for the longest time. Then she spoke, a tear in her eye. “This isn’t about me. It’s about crafting. This is the end of crafting in Sarasota as we know it. The task lighting is going out all over town. We shall not see it lit again.”

Mr. Spryke sat with her a moment, as if in mourning. It was so quiet in her big Spanish Med. Then he took his leave and tiptoed away.

Mary Alice knew something was up. She didn’t know what, but she knew it was something. Mr. Spryke had written Rick a check for $5,000 and then, three days later, another one for $1,000. Why? Rick certainly hadn’t earned that much working.

No, something was going on. The long talks on the verandah continued, only now with the door shut. Some crisis was brewing. And she was being kept out of the loop.  

Why? There was only one explanation. It had something to do with her.

But for the life of her she couldn’t imagine what. They couldn’t be scheming to fire her, as she was no longer getting paid. She was privy to the books and knew better than anyone that her salary, as paltry as it was, was a major source of expenditure for Casual Elegance. So she had taken the preemptive step of refusing a paycheck. Her salary would be replaced by a profit-sharing plan to come at the end of the year, provided there would be any profits, which wasn’t likely.

She reflected in her darker hours, as she lay in bed next to Dr. Wiggins trying to fall asleep, that maybe money wasn’t the issue. Maybe they just didn’t like her. She didn’t care about Rick. Oh, she felt sorry for him, with that bossy wife and the poor disabled kid. But she could survive without Rick’s appreciation of her specialness. But without Mr.Spryke’s—never.

What she needed was to score some points.

She thought about it for the next couple of days. Mr. Spryke needed work. Where was the work? She’d heard the high end was still doing well. Sarasota’s rich people were still spending, although they were doing it very discreetly. That’s what Mr. Spryke needed—a job discreetly decorating a millionaire’s showplace home. That could keep him busy for months, all the while paying top dollar.

But where did you get these jobs? Ulla Searing didn’t look in the Yellow Pages.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she told Mr. Spryke the next day as they were going through the mail. “You should attend more social events. Charity functions. Stuff with the arts.”

“I’d feel so awkward,” Mr. Spryke said. “I hate going to parties where I don’t know anybody.”

“I could go with you.”

There was a moment’s pause. “And they’re very expensive.”

“Not all of them.”

She had planted a seed. The next day she found Mr. Spryke thumbing through Sarasota Magazine’s Charity Register and turning the pages down. Later that afternoon he brought up the Senior Friendship Center. “That’s a top charity, is it not?”

“Oh, yes,” said Mary Alice. “They do wonderful things for the old people. Square dancing. Health screening. Hot meals.”

Mr. Spryke furrowed his brow. “Who supports it?”

“Everybody. Everybody in town. All the rich people.”

“Hmmm. I see they’re having a luncheon next week—”

“Yes!”

“Too bad tickets are $45.”

Mary Alice took a moment to gather her wits. She didn’t know what charity lunches in Hurlbutt, Wisconsin, cost, but here in Sarasota, $45 was a rock-bottom price, what with catering by Michael’s On East and a fashion show from Designing Women Boutique and a silent auction—

“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” She jumped up, her eyes wide with excitement.

“What? What?”

“We’ll make you a silent auction item!” 
 

                                                           

 

Mr. Spryke felt his pulse quicken as he and Mary Alice walked into the big white tent set on the shady grounds of the Senior Friendship Center. Spread before him was a side of Sarasota he was unfamiliar with—the high-end market, in all its glory. How prosperous they all looked. So much more stylish than Hurlbutt, Wisconsin, where he had often thought his mother was the only well-dressed woman in town.

Here the women wore sophisticated fashions in what seemed to be the “cruise” category. Bright colors with a sporty feel. None of that drab black they wear in New York, or all that vulgar cleavage so predominant in Los Angeles. Here it was the perfect balance of the tropical yet chic. And contrary to popular legend, they hadn’t all had face lifts. (Although the more he studied the faces, quite a few of them had.) The men—and there were some, though not a lot, for not many men have the time or inclination to attend a ladies’ luncheon and fashion show—wore mostly blazers and slacks, which was fine with Mr. Spryke, as it was exactly what he was wearing.

“Oh, my,” said Mary Alice. “There’s Ulla Searing.”

Mr. Spryke followed her gaze. Sure enough, there was the 96-year-old grande dame, still blond and glamorous, wearing her trademark white gloves and what looked like a vintage Chanel suit. 

Mrs. Searing was with a younger man (younger than she, at any rate, probably in his early 60s) who was precisely the sort of man—dapper, elegant, attentive—who escorted older ladies to parties. He was rather like Mr. Spryke himself, and the resemblance was not lost on Mr. Spryke. In fact, it began to give him ideas.

Their first objective, once they got their bearings, was to check the silent auction display, and after a while they found their item. It was not ideally located, being on the far side of the tent and well down toward the end, but it had two classy neighbors, a weekend at the Colony with a couples message, and a lacquered jewel box from Shrode Jewelers that played the theme from Titanic.

Once again they read the printed placard they had written, decorated with lilies of the valley.

 

                        A One-Hour Consultation with Mr. Timothy Spryke

 

Mr. Spryke will journey to your home and personally impart to you the secrets of his legendary Casual Elegance style. He will facilitate the transformation of your living environment to an organic yet elegant whole, one that truly, at the end of the day, says you. Value: $250.

 

Mr. Spryke wished he’d taken a little firmer hand with the editing process. That “elegant whole” reference was unfortunate, and there seemed to be an awful lot of “you’s.” But most of all, the $250 worried him. The most he’d ever gotten for an initial consultation was $100. Usually they were $45, and there were more than he cared to remember that he had given for free.

They reluctantly left the placard and began the next item on their agenda, namely, to mingle and drum up business. It proved more difficult than anticipated. The first few forays were disasters, with Mary Alice coming on like gangbusters to people she sort of knew but who didn’t really remember her, and Mr. Spryke standing there mortified. They finally met a very nice woman named Kathy Schersten, who really did seem to know Mary Alice, and they spent some time chatting her up. Just when it was getting promising, it turned out that Kathy did all her own decorating and had even been featured in magazines. 

Suddenly it was time to sit down to lunch. Mr. Spryke surveyed the others at the table and was pained to learn that two of them were mortgage brokers and the other was Susan Rife, the book editor of the Herald-Tribune. Been there, done that, thought Mr. Spryke, hoping the two gentlemen sitting next to them might be more fertile, work-wise.

“Hello, I’m Dennis Stover,” said one of them, stretching out his hand. “I do fund raising for the Center.”

“We love the Center,” said Mary Alice. “It’s our favorite charity.”

It’s our only charity, thought Mr. Spryke, but Dennis seemed quite pleasant, with his boyish face and whitish hair. He cheerfully answered Mary Alice’s questions about the Center, like what programs they offered, and who their clients were, and how did one apply for any decorating jobs that might come up, in the common areas, or the offices, perhaps, where good decorating was so crucial for employee morale, or maybe the clinic waiting room, where it was so important to have a bright, happy, optimistic atmosphere, which, as it turned out, was Mr. Spryke’s specialty. Dennis’s partner, a thinner man with glasses named Phil King, looked on in awe.
 

It seemed that only the fashion show could shut Mary Alice up, and when Cliff Roles came out at 12:30 and asked for the crowd’s attention, she became properly silent and settled back to eat her dessert and ogle the clothes. Cliff welcomed everyone, and after a plug for his soon-to-open show at the Players (Death of a Salesman) he thanked the committee and the sponsors and had them stand up. Then with great fanfare he introduced the 32 “celebrity models,” each wearing a creation from Designing Women, the fancy consignment store run as a charity by the rich socialites.

The clothes were very high quality, no-longer-needed ensembles from Saks and the Bal Harbour Shops, and the models, as coached by Phil, who ran an image consulting business, did a credible job of sashaying down the runway, hand on hip, pout on lips, to the beat of what Phil explained was “house music.” On they came—Dr. Anne Chauvet, the veterinary neurosurgeon with the spectacular figure; Kathy Dent, the supervisor of elections in a red Adolfo suit. Magazine editors Lisl Liang (in Vera Wang) and Pam Daniel (Lane Bryant) actually got into a little “pose-off,” which got very competitive until Lisl graciously allowed the older woman to win.

As enjoyable as it was, Mr. Spryke’s attention kept going to his silent auction placard. He’d been keeping his eye on it all during lunch and frankly, it hadn’t been drawing the traffic he’d hoped. How high had the bidding climbed, he wondered. Had it gotten over $250? He prayed fervently that it had. Oh, how did he let Mary Alice talk him into these schemes? It seemed like each one came back to bite him in the rear.

He sensed a change in the energy of the crowd and turned his attention back to the runway, where a small elderly woman was clomping down the runway in an eggplant evening gown and a million dollars in jewelry from McCarver and Moser.

“Oh, my God,” whispered Susan Rife. “It’s Doris Dickens.”

“Who’s Doris Dickens?” Mr. Spryke whispered to Phil.

“She’s the 13th-richest widow in Sarasota,” he replied. “They call her the poor man’s Ulla Searing.”

Doris sensed she had the crowd in her hand, and she beamed with happiness at being in the spotlight. She beamed so much that her attention wandered and she began to weave as she made her way down the runway, coming dangerously close to one side, then miraculously catching herself and heading to the other side and getting even closer. The audience held its collective breath until Cliff Roles sprinted down the runway and guided her gracefully back. The audience roared its relief, and Doris, oblivious to her near disaster, beamed with joy.

Then, suddenly it was over. The crowd, many of whom had to get back to work, jumped up and dispersed. Some stayed behind; this group included Mr. Spyke and Mary Alice, as they had to find out about the silent auction. The suspense was just too great.

Dennis came up to them holding a piece of paper. “You got a bid.”

One bid, thought Mr. Spryke. “How much?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five dollars?”

“When it’s that low you don’t have to accept,” Dennis said.

Mr. Spryke felt like folding his tents and leaving town. This just wasn’t working, this Sarasota thing. He had tried his best but now he saw the handwriting on the wall. It was one problem after another and he was suddenly sick of it. Twenty-five dollars! How many more insults could he have thrown at him?

“Who’s the bidder?” asked Mary Alice.

Dennis squinted at the signature. Then he tried it from a different angle.

“Let me see,” said Mary Alice.

She scrutinized it as Phil looked over her shoulder.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “It’s Doris Dickens.”

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