In last month’s installment, Sarasota was still buzzing about Cliff Roles’ arrest for two murders. Meanwhile, Mr. Spryke was eclipsed in the competition for wealthy widow Doris Dickens’ affection and patronage by young Marco Massimo, and Mary Alice realized her husband was having an affair. Then Mr. Spryke received a call from novelist Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, asking him to drive to Casey Key that night to discuss redecorating their home. Following the directions she gave him, he drove off a boat ramp and into the water, where he seemed doomed to perish.
“Any brain damage?”
“Too early to tell.”
“How long did he stop breathing?”
“We’re not sure. Maybe 30 seconds. Maybe a couple of minutes.”
“Wow. And he’s still alive. Any other injuries?”
“A sprained back. And two broken fingers.”
“He must have gone into some sort of adrenal frenzy trying to get the door open. A childlike panic.”
Childlike panic, my ass, thought Mr. Spryke as he lay there in the hospital bed. They thought he was asleep, which is what he wanted them to think. You can learn a lot by pretending to be unconscious in a hospital bed. People rambled on about your most intimate personal matters, as if you weren’t even there.
It had been three days since his “accident.” Or was it four days? He wasn’t sure any more. They were pumping him full of narcotics and blood thinners and God knows what else. Everything was hazy. Except for one thing. Tabitha King was trying to kill him.
Of course he told them. As soon as he regained consciousness it was the first thing he said. “Arrest her!” he shouted in a husky, slurred voice. “She’s the Collectible Killer!”
“Now, now,” they said. “Everything will be just fine.” Then they gave him another shot.
Time passed in strange, jerky frames. One moment he was dreaming of dark shapes and hanging moss and strange lights. And that awful water, getting higher and higher. He was pretty sure the two fishermen who rescued him had come to visit. A picture must have been taken, as one appeared in the newspaper. It made a heartwarming tale, but the Herald-Tribune missed the real story—Tabitha King was trying to murder him.
What a cunning woman. She was the reason behind her husband’s success, people whispered. If people only knew! That late-night phone call, so seductively hitting his vulnerable weakness—a decorating job for a celebrity—and so adroitly setting the trap—a winding path to murder, calibrated in feet and yards and hedges and gates and trees, until he suddenly reached a cliff and drove right off, or in this case, straight down a very steep boating ramp and right into the bay at its deepest point.
Even Rick and Mary Alice didn’t believe him. That was the worst part. They were his closest friends, his innermost confidants. And all they did was go, “Hush, hush, you just rest.”
And then that awful word, first whispered out in the hall but now bantered about shamelessly right in his room every time he closed his eyes—dementia.
Never had he felt so alone or so vulnerable. The more he told the truth, the crazier they thought he was. And if he kept his mouth shut, he was a sitting target for Mrs. King on her second try.
A nurse walked in. He had not seen her before, and his antennae went on high alert. He remembered a picture he had once seen of Tabitha in Sarasota Magazine. She was doing something for the homeless in Bradenton. It was a while back, but he did remember that she was middle-aged, with dark, longish hair parted on the side.
Just like the nurse.
“And how are we doing?” she exclaimed.
“Are we awake?”
Mr. Spryke looked at her carefully. Two things were immediately apparent. She could easily be Mrs. King—right age, right hair—and she could easily smother him with a pillow in about two seconds flat.
The nurse went over to the window and peered out at the sunset. “It’s getting dark,” she said, and she pulled the curtain closed. Her hands were big, and she seemed to be flexing her fingers. She turned to face him.
“Are we ready for our enema?” she asked.
So that was it. A poison enema, just like the Kennedys did with Marilyn Monroe. Well, he would fight it. He would fight that enema with the least breath in his body.
“I don’t need an enema.”
“I don’t care for them.”
She disappeared into the bathroom. He heard a drawer open and things being moved around.
“No, no, please. I find them painful.”
She reappeared, holding a red rubber bag and tube with a nozzle.
“Please. I beg of you. Let’s think of something else. They scare me. Please. Not an enema. Not an enema!”
She looked at him with a smile. “You’d feel more comfortable with a male orderly. Is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
It wasn’t her. She gave up much too easily.
Out in Lakewood Ranch, Mary Alice was going through her medicine chest. Here Mr. Spryke was complaining about all the drugs they were plying him with, and she was down to her last Percocet.
There had to be some more somewhere. Dr. Wiggins was a dentist, for heaven’s sake. There should be Percocet lying around everywhere. Samples. Emergency supplies. Leftovers. But all she could find was a small stash from her root canal last March.
Many Alice tried the medicine chest in the guest bathroom, then the one in Jessica’s room, then the one in Jason’s, then the powder room, her husband’s nightstand, his sock drawer, the desk in his den, and the kitchen vitamin shelf. Thank God she didn’t have an addictive personality. This frenzy was a temporary aberration, she kept telling herself. Just something to get her over the hump.
It was a two-pronged hump, a double whammy. First of all, Mr. Spryke had lost his mind. He’d better recover it, and soon. He just had to. If he didn’t she wouldn’t have her exciting job, or a chance to hobnob with Sarasota’s top-drawer set. No more galas, no more balls.
But most of all she would miss the old Mr. Spryke. Her wonderful friend and mentor. Their telephone chats, their long talks in the office about nothing at all, really, but so much fun and so entertaining that she would replay them in her mind in the evenings: what clever thing he said, what clever rejoinder she could have made if she’d thought of it in time.
The new Mr. Spryke was a nightmare. For the first time, he seemed old. Every time he came down from the drugs he would rant about Mrs. Stephen King and how she was trying to kill him. The Kings weren’t even in town. They were both in Zurich on financial business. The doctors thought a stroke might be involved, caused by the lack of oxygen. His loved ones had to prepare themselves for the possibility that Mr. Spryke would need long-term care.
Putting Mr. Spryke in a home would be no fun, but she could do it. She was a strong woman who had been through the decline and death of her parents. She could do it again, and as Mr. Spryke had no close relatives, she might very well have to.
But confronting her husband’s infidelity was something she had no skill for. True, women since time immemorial had found themselves in her shoes. Jackie Kennedy had been there, and she survived. Hillary Clinton—she survived. Princess Diana—well, she didn’t survive, and that’s what worried her, because when Mary Alice compared herself to the great women of the age, Princess Diana was perhaps the most like her. They were both romantic outsiders whose only crime was to love too much
The Percocet started the day she found those receipts on the floor of the car. One from the Motel 6 in Bradenton, and an even more disturbing one itemizing purchases made at Walgreen’s, including black thigh-highs and some duct tape.
The first pill took the edge off. It wasn’t like she was taking a lot. Maybe one a day. She certainly hadn’t turned into a drug addict.
But she needed some more, desperately. She supposed she could concoct some medical or dental problem and beg some from Dr. Wiggins. But her few forays into lying and/or exaggerating to get prescription drugs were fiascos, and she had backed down at the first sign of suspicion. She was not a good actress. Her husband would know something was up. Perhaps she could pretend to develop a toothache so bad they would have to extract it. “I’m not that far gone,” she told herself, though she did file the idea away for future reference.
She closed her eyes and pictured Dr. Wiggins’ office. There had to be some Percocet lying around, in a locked cabinet somewhere. Back in the old days, those wonderful old days when she and the doctor still laughed together and had big dreams, she had worked in the office. She sat behind the desk and checked people in and scheduled appointments and even did the books, until that misunderstanding with the IRS. Maybe she could do that again, learning where they kept the drugs . . .
Then her eyes landed on the label. She had stared at it a million times but had never noticed something. There was a refill! My God, how had she not seen that?
She turned and ran for the phone.
Mr. Spryke was back teaching high school. He was naked except for a dunce cap, holding a pointer that he banged against the desk in a futile attempt to restore order to the classroom. The students were pointing and laughing at him. Other people were there as well: his mother, looking shocked and appalled; Rick, busy installing a valance and oblivious; and in the front row, a young woman, whom he vaguely recognized from somewhere. She stood up and started coming toward him, her arms outstretched and about to grab him by the neck, when he suddenly woke up.
Of course. It wasn’t Tabitha King. It was some woman pretending to be Tabitha King. How could he have missed it?
It was the drugs, he decided. They had so clouded his judgment that he couldn’t see the big picture. Now, for the first time, he could.
A woman was after him. She had killed two people and had now turned her murderous intentions on him. She was not Tabitha King, but she could be just about anybody else.
Mr. Spryke climbed hurriedly out of bed and, ignoring the pain in his back, made his way over to a vase of flowers. He took the flowers out and mixed them in with those in another vase. Then he dumped the water out in the sink and rinsed the vase out, feeling the heft of it in his hand.
Not the perfect weapon, but at least it was something.
As he was settling into his bed and trying to figure out just how to hide the vase, there was a knock at the door. Mr. Spryke froze for a moment, then scooted under the covers, putting the vase between his legs.
His visitor was Doris Dickens.
“Come in, come in,” he beckoned. This was Doris’ first visit. Maybe she didn’t know about his dementia issues. Maybe she would believe him.
“What a shame,” she said, looking him over. “You used to be so active.”
“I still am active,” he bristled. Boy, talk about getting off on the wrong foot.
“Sure you are, hon. But getting old is no fun.”
“I’m not old,” he said. “And neither are you,” he added tactfully.
Doris had a peculiar way of visiting people in hospitals. It was all about her—where she was when she heard the news, who told her, her reaction, what she thought of the picture in the paper, her friends who had also driven down boat ramps. It was hard for him to get a word in edgewise. He knew then and there that getting Doris involved in his dilemma would only backfire in some way he couldn’t anticipate.
Participating in the conversation was far too tiring, so after a while he stopped. It was going to be a long night, and he needed to save his strength. He just lay there and listened, his eyes half closed. He glanced at the clock; visiting hours were almost over. Soon they would come and eject her. Then he would be—alone.
“Are you going back to work?” she asked out of the blue.
“Of course I’m going back to work.”
“Goody, ’cause I have a job for you.”
“Oh?” said Mr. Spryke, sitting up slightly. He might be brain-damaged and broken-fingered in Sarasota Memorial, but the prospect of a job in this economy immediately got his attention.
“Yeah. Mario’s new gallery on Palm Avenue.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no.”
Mr. Spryke knew enough to stay away from Mario. The young entrepreneur/gigolo and he were a bad mix. Besides, Mario had won their undeclared war for the old lady’s affections. He was now Doris’ walker, protégé, business partner. Mr. Spryke had wanted those titles, but Mario had outsmarted him, out-charmed him, outmaneuvered him. He admitted it. He lost, Mario won, and there was no reason to get the two of them in the same room again.
“Oh, come on. Mario’s not even going to know.”
Mr. Spryke’s ears pricked up. “Oh? How could he not know who’s decorating his gallery?”
“Because we’re going to be in Europe. To buy art. You can do it while we’re gone. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful surprise?”
Mr. Spryke felt a slight smile come to his lips. “Wouldn’t it?”
At Walgreen’s, Mary Alice was killing time. She perused the magazine rack, then wandered over to cosmetics, then greeting cards, then shampoo and hair coloring. This certainly was taking a long time. Was there something wrong with the prescription? Had it expired or something? Was it red-flagged? Was she being led into a trap to catch drug addicts?
“Mary Alice Wiggins to the pharmacy,” said a voice over the loudspeaker. She took a deep breath and hurried over. But the woman behind the counter couldn’t have been more pleasant or nonjudgmental as she handed Mary Alice her drugs. A giddy feeling overtook her, and it was all she could do to keep from breaking out into hysterical, inappropriate laughter.
First things first. She headed to the refrigerated drinks case and grabbed a bottle of premium water. Out in her car, the sack was hard to open. It had been stapled, and she finally had to tear it open with a grunt. There they were: 30 glorious Percocet staring back at her.
She poured one into her hand. It looked like so innocent, like an aspirin. A big aspirin, like they have in foreign countries. She knew she should like foreign countries. All that culture and art and other ways of living. But all she saw were the crowds of people saying things she couldn’t understand and standing too close to her. That dental convention in Prague had been an ordeal.
Gingerly, she put the Percocet into her mouth and took a sip of water. It did not go down easily and scratched the sides of her throat.
A thought occurred to her. It was the same thought that occurred to the very first drug addict so many years ago. If one Percocet made her feel good, how would two make her feel?
She realized she was standing at the edge of a cliff. So she made a deal with herself. She’d try it once. Just to see what it was like. Tonight was the perfect night. Dr. Wiggins was in Ormond Beach for the annual meeting of the Florida Republican Dental Congress and wouldn’t be back until late tomorrow afternoon.
Just as she was about to put the second pill in her mouth, something attracted her attention. A family group—a man and a woman and two little boys—were walking toward the pickup truck parked near her car, a pickup truck that looked remarkably like— Rick’s.
Yes, it was Rick. She threw the pills on the passenger seat and put down the water. Maybe if she were as quiet as possible they wouldn’t notice her.
Rick and his wife seemed to be having an argument, which made her situation even more awkward. Debbie Yoder was angry about something, while Rick was stoic and stone-faced. They arrived at the pickup truck barely 20 feet away from Mary Alice’s car.
“You can’t even pay for your son’s medicine,” Debbie was all but screaming. “What kind of man are you?”
Rick’s wife was trampy for a Mennonite, with denim shorts and an ankle tattoo. Her voice had the gravelly pitch of a cigarette smoker’s.
“I can pay,” said Rick calmly.
“How? Conning it from some interior decorator?”
She gave the words “interior decorator” a horrible meaning, emphasizing them with a mincing gesture.
If there were a hole Mary Alice could have crawled in, she would have gladly done it. But she couldn’t. She was stuck there, hiding in the dark as they stood there under the streetlight.
“And now he’s a vegetable. What are you going to do now?”
“Mr. Spryke is not a vegetable,” said Rick, this time with a real flash of anger. “Take that back.”
Debby responded with a fusillade of curses, and threw the boys, both crying by this time, into the truck. Then she climbed in, started it up, and peeled out of the parking lot.
Rick stood there. Mary Alice watched him. He looked around, apparently trying to come up with a plan for what to do next. Please, dear God, she prayed. Don’t let him see me.
He looked at her car—then looked again. There was just enough light for him to see that someone was sitting there. His body recoiled when he saw who.
For a minute it was a Mexican standoff. He could have easily turned and fled. But he didn’t. He walked over to her car.
What could she do? She put the window down.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
At that moment, the eyes of both landed on the empty seat next to Mary Alice. There, spread across the burgundy upholstery, was the most incriminating of tableaux—an arc of pills, the plastic pill bottle, the paper bag impatiently ripped open . . .
“I . . . I . . .” Mary Alice began.
“Yes?” Rick said. His tone was encouraging, sympathetic.
“I’m so unhappy,” she blurted, and burst into tears.
A hospital is a creepy place late at night, even as nice a one as Sarasota Memorial. Mr. Spryke lay there in his bed, wide awake and waiting. His hand was clutching the heavy glass vase. He was ready.
His mind was clear and sharp for a change. He had only pretended to take his sleeping medication. The two blue pills were now stuffed under the mattress.
In fact, his mind was so clear that it was going into overdrive. His newly refreshed brain was spinning around like crazy. He forced himself to calm down and come up with a plan.
First, he had to get out of the hospital. At the moment, anybody could walk in and kill him. Well, starting tomorrow he would make a miraculous recovery. His back pain would vanish, and his mental faculties would return in full force. Nobody was trying to kill him, he would tell them. His confusion would vanish and the old Mr. Spryke would be back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to get on with his life.
Once home, he would secure the premises. Locks with chains. Deadbolts. A 24-hour light for the front and back doors. He would go online and research alarm systems. Portable security devices. Perhaps he could get Rick to sleep over at night as a sort of attendant/bodyguard.
And once he felt a little safer, once he didn’t have to concentrate on merely surviving the next five minutes, he would find the real killer.
Why was she after him? He had nothing to steal. Oh, he had beautiful things, but not the sort of things you killed for. Maybe he knew something. Something he didn’t know he knew. Some piece of information that would reveal who the killer was.
He reviewed what he knew about her. She was strong enough to bludgeon a man to death. Granted, old Mr. Kneff had been 91. But he was a spry 91, and he had made a very good living for himself by standing on one finger. So she was probably young and limber.
The mystery woman also had an insider’s view of the collectibles market. She knew what things were worth; she knew which ones were easy to sell, like Lladro. She knew that collectors often collected more than one thing. In their homes they might have untold treasures, things they might even not know the true value of.
And she knew all about Mr. Spryke. She knew just what buttons to push to lure him to his death.
He had to figure all this out by himself. Nobody would help him now. He had cried wolf too many times—
Mr. Spryke froze. The doorknob was turning.
Here she is, he thought. “Help me, dear God.”
Slowly, slowly, the door opened and a face appeared. It was a man.
In fact, it was a hospital orderly. He was wearing green scrubs, and the dull light from the hallway gleamed on his shaved head. Oddly, he was wearing sunglasses.
“Are you here for my enema?” Mr. Spryke asked.
“Enema? Enema? Yeah, that’s right. I’m here for your enema.”
He had the strangest accent, perhaps Australian, or maybe Jamaican. As he entered the room and closed the door behind him, Mr. Spryke began to realize that he might have breathed his sigh of relief a little too soon.
“Who are you?” he asked, gripping the vase.
The man ripped off his sunglasses. “It’s me. Cliff Roles.”
Mr. Spryke started to scream, but Cliff bounded over to him in a single leap and planted his hand over the older man’s mouth.
“You gotta help me, Mr. Spryke. Somebody’s trying to kill me.”
“Me, too!” said Mr. Spryke, wiggling free from Cliff’s hand. “But I don’t know who it is.”
“You don’t?” said Cliff. “It’s so obvious.”
“You really haven’t figured it out?”
Cliff Roles smiled in triumph. “Haley Harper Howe.”
You can read the next installment in our June issue.
Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of two novels, My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie. He’s also a frequent contributor to national publications, including Barron’s, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times.
Read previous chapters of “Decorating Can Be Murder” at sarasotamagazine.com.