A free read from my collection of mystery shorts: Revenge With A Twist
Carolann Gravelle flew to Bermuda two days after Alex and his new bride…
Had it been any other Tuesday, she would have been at her desk in suburban Toronto, processing death claims for Parkwood Life and Casualty. but not today. Today, she was flying first class on Air Canada’s Flight 942 to Bermuda, drinking champagne and dreaming of death and dismemberment amidst the bougainvillea.
Carolann had fantasized more than a few people to death over the years. Her favourite method, used countless times by the great Agatha Christie, was poison. Especially the obvious ones. They made one feel so decidedly superior.
She chatted with her seat companion as the plane flew over Manhattan and headed out over the Atlantic. He seemed pleasant, and she enjoyed his company until he began flirting with the flight attendant. If that was the way he was, Carolann decided, she’d rather read her book.
Allowing herself an anticipatory shiver at the thought of being with Alex again she settled back in her chair.
The first time she’d met Alexander Wright, she’d been hovering around the mystery section in Mirvish Books, disappointed that there was nothing new from her usual authors, when a rather handsome man had asked her a question.
At first, she’d thought he’d mistaken her for one of the clerks. But when he’d engaged her in a spirited conversation about the state of mystery writing in Canada, she realized he’d wanted her opinion. Next thing she knew, they were moving towards the cash together and talking about structure.
“It’s all in the plot. Don’t you agree/”
“Oh, absolutely,” Carolann had said. He had such beautiful blue eyes. “As long as there are strong character driving it along.” She’d hesitated, groping for the right answer to keep his interest and the conversation going. “But I do think it’s just as hard to kill someone as it is to figure out who did it.”
Alex had given her an appraising look. “You seem to be well versed in the subject.”
Clutching her book bag hopefully against her chest, Carolann had told him all about her book club as they walked out of the store together. They’d had coffee in a little Hungarian restaurant on Bloor Street and afterwards, he’d walked her to her car.
The next six months were the most glorious in Carolann’s life.
They’d gone bicycling on the island, checked out the specialty books shops around town and spent Sundays exploring the surrounding countryside in Alex’s leased Mercedes.
Much to her surprise, and secret pleasure, Carolann found herself haunting lingerie departments on her lunch hour. She even read Cosmo in the grocery line.
At thirty-two, Carolann had all but given up on the reality of a long-term relationship. It wasn’t that she couldn’t attract men. She was simply too possessive. After two or three dates they invariably backed away. Her social activities of late had been restricted to odd evenings out with other lonely, single women.
Having Alex was a dream come true. He was even interested in her job, constantly asking her questions about the insurance business and how it worked. Carolann wondered if he might be planning a book. Sara Paretsky, the Chicago mystery writer, had worked in the insurance business and used that insider knowledge to her advantage. Why not Alex?
When his questions had become too complex for her to answer, she’d put him in touch with one of the sales reps and forgotten all about it.
Alex’s job, buying and selling commercial real estate, was extremely idiosyncratic. More than a few times, Carolann had had to pick up the entire bill when they went out on the town. But she didn’t mind; it was a small price to pay if she could be with him.
Their relationship continued to blossom until one blustery afternoon in late November when Alex had unexpectedly arrived at Parkwood Life and Casualty. A client had given him two tickets to a special performance of The Mousetrap. If they went directly from work, they would just have time for dinner before the show.
With pre-season snowflakes melting on his dark hair and the shoulders of his cashmere overcoat, Alex could have posed for a Harry Rosen ad. Half the women in the office had surreptitiously had their eyes on him since the moment he’d walked in.
Having a beau was a unique situation for Carolann, and she had delighted in showing him off, especially to Judith Costello.
Executive assistant to the vice-president of claims, Judith Costello was the most vain, shallow and mean-spirited woman Carolann had ever met. She was also one of the most gorgeous. Judith’s father, Victor Costello, was on the Board of Parkwood Life and Casualty. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how she’d gotten the job.
Despite the sexy black lace and garters she now wore beneath her business suits, Carolann felt like a frump beside Judith and Judith knew it.
“You’re a well-kept secret,” Judith had purred. She’d taken Alex’s hand in hers and turned her back to Carolann.
“We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we,” Alex had answered prompting Carolann to intervene and whisk him away before any permanent damage could be done.
Rather than raise her stock around the office, Alex’s visit had seemed to work against her. Conversations dried up in mid-sentence when she entered the staff lounge. People checked out the ceiling when she stepped onto the elevator. When Carolann had jokingly asked one of the clerks if she had the plague, he’d flushed alarmingly and mumbled something about a rush job down in photocopying.
Even Alex had begun to act strangely. He had the flu, he’d said, but when Carolann had offered to come over and nurse him back to health, he’d put her off.
Judith, on the other hand, looked radiant. Tall, with long chestnut hair, she had always been the best-dressed woman in the office, but lately, even Carolann had to admit, she’d outdone herself. Designer suits, silk blouses and skin-tight dresses which hugged her body in curves that Carolann could never hope to have.
A few times Carolann had spotted Judith eyeing her stealthily from across the room. She’d put it down to paranoia until an anonymous note, left on her desk one noon hour, had finally confirmed her fears. Alex and Judith were an item and nobody’d had the nerve to tell her.
The next few weeks were humiliating.
“I just want to be free to see other women,’ Alex had said when Carolann had stormed into his apartment in fury. He’d given her the usual routine of wanting to remain friends, etcetera.
Carolann planned to hold him to it.
After that, whenever they saw each other, Carolann was bright and cheerful and Alex had typically acted as if nothing had changed. He’d even gone home with her one night when Judith was out of town, convincing Carolann that he loved her still.
She was so sure that Alex would eventually see through Judith’s superficiality and come back to her that she’d been totally unprepared for Alex’s announcement.
He’d been in her living room, drinking her scotch and sitting on her couch when, after a few minutes of idle chitchat, he’d set down his glass and taken her hand in his.
“I’m marrying Judith and I want you to come to the wedding.”
Carolann had been stunned.
“Don’t say no right away,” he’d said anxiously. “I want you to think it through first.” Then he’d raised his glass to her, and said, “After all, you are my best friend.”
Carolann had wanted to scream. How could he sit there and calmly announce his engagement when he knew she loved him? She told herself to calm down and think. She’d invested too much in him to lose him now.
When the day of the wedding finally arrived, Carolann had put on her best black dress. People would admire her for her strength, she thought, as she added a little black hat with a hint of veil across its brim.
The wedding had been a glitzy affair, three bridesmaids, twin flower girls, a sit-down dinner for eighty and an open bar.
A videotaped recording of the ceremony, complete with close-ups, had played over and over again on a big screen behind the head table, forcing Carolann to frequent the bar more than she should have.
“Tell me you’re having a good time,” Alex had pleaded when he’d come upon her standing alone, drink in hand, in the hallway outside the reception room.
“Not really.” She’d gazed up into his eyes and saw what she’d always seen. Alex loved her.
He must have seen it too, because he had reached for her hand and given it a squeeze. “I’ve missed seeing you, Carolann.”
“Then why did you….”
She couldn’t finish. Her throat had been so thick with impending tears that they’d stood there in awkward silence until a rustle of organza told them Judith was near.
“There you are,” she’d said as she walked up to them, and slid her arm through her husband’s.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you, darling. It’s time to cut the cake.”
“I was just chatting with Carolann,” Alex had said and he’d winked at her.
Judith was not amused. “Daddy wants us at the head table now, darling,” she’d said to Alex.
Then she’d fastened her claws on Carolann. “I’m sorry to steal him away from you like this, Carolann…but you know how it is…, but, no, I guess you don’t, do you?”
Bitch, thought Carolann. She hoped the baker had accidentally laced the cake with almonds. It would serve Judith right. Everyone at the office knew about Judith’s allergies. She’d actually bragged about them as though they made her even more special. Her wedding cake was to be made with no almond paste, no citron and no pecans. And no taste, Carolann had giggled as she’d watched the bridge and groom, poised, knife-in-hand, for another round of pictures.
Later that night, depressed and overloaded on scotch, Carolann had taken the small doily and ribbon-wrapped piece of wedding cake from her purse, and amused herself by sticking it with a straight pin.
“He loves me, he loves me not…” she’d chanted over and over again. The more she poked at the cake, the more she thought about Judith. And the more she thought about Judith, the clearer her thoughts became.
By the time the light began to lift over the lake, Carolann had made her plans. But first she’d need a few hours’ sleep. She stumbled into bed, somewhat unsteadily, and slid the cake under her pillow. Maybe it would bring her good luck.
* * *
Carolann breathed in deeply. The early afternoon air was salty and moist, with just a hint of hibiscus and oleander.
She passed through Customs as Anita Johnston, using the passport she’d saved from her late cousin’s estate, and queued up for a cab.
Neither she, nor Anita, had ever been to Bermuda before, and as the taxi rattled across the wooden causeway linking the airport with the main island, Carolann was ecstatic that Judith had chosen the tiny island for her honeymoon. It was beautiful. Carolann kept a firm grip on her purse. Before she’d left Toronto, she’d withdrawn a large amount of cash from her savings account and booked a “Bermuda Short,” the three-day holiday package named for the island’s famous knee-length dress shorts. Carolann thought it most amusing.
Next, she’d purchased a new wardrobe, which, combined with a few supplies from the health food store and the pharmacy would provide all the cover and ammunition she’d need.
The roads in Bermuda were much narrower than they’d appeared in the pictures she’d seen online. Carolann was dazzled by the way they twisted and turned along the hilly terrain, passing so close to the side of the road, that every now and then a palm frond would slap against the open window of the cab.
As the driver swung around the traffic circle outside Hamilton, she anxiously rechecked her reflection in the rear view mirror.
Her hair was now a deep reddy-brown, almost mahogany, with a wisp of bangs trailing across her forehead. The green eye liner she wore in concert with a pair of tortoise-shell frames had changed her appearance so drastically she was sure neither Alex nor Judith would recognize her.
The moment the taxi rolled to a stop in front of the pink-stuccoed Chelsea Hotel, a bell hop stepped from the shadows of the front portico and opened the rear door of the cab.
“Welcome to the Chelsea, ma’am,” he said as he helped her alight. “Is this your first trip to the island?”
Carolann nodded and followed him into the hotel.
The lobby was stunning. Butter-yellow sofas with matching wing chairs were scattered invitingly around the room, their colour complemented by dramatic displays of island flowers. With its panoramic view of the Great Sound, the whole effect was breathtaking and somehow very British, despite the tropical blues and greens beyond the glass.
The receptionist had everything in order, and if she was surprised that Carolann was paying in cash instead of using a credit card, she kept it to herself.
“Enjoy your stay, Ms. Johnston.”
“Thank you,” said Carolann. “I’m sure I will.”
She followed the bell hop across the lobby and into the waiting elevator. They chatted about the island and the sights she should see as the mahogany-panelled lift slowly rose to the third floor.
“You must be Canadian,” he said as he led the way down the corridor.
Carolann smiled. “How can you tell?”
He looked over his shoulder to make sure there were no stray Americans. “Canadians are more conservative,” he whispered as he unlocked the door to her room.
Carolann tipped him five bucks U.S.
The room was a delightful mix of rattan and floral prints. Carolann did a quick survey of the amenities before she carefully unpacked her bag. The small glass vial of walnut oil was still intact, safely hidden inside the plastic case she normally used for her toothbrush on the counter. No one would assume the case was anything but an empty container.
At precisely seven o’clock, Carolann went downstairs for dinner.
Tables for two lined the perimeter of the dining room. Their elegant linen settings and high-back chairs had been carefully placed to give solitary diners the illusion of belonging to the crowd.
Carolann had a table by the window, but she still felt conspicuous, sitting alone, drinking a glass of white wine. It was almost seven-thirty before Alex and Judith strolled in, arm-in-arm. When the maître d’ showed them to the next table, Carolann nearly fainted.
She smiled stiffly in response to Alex’s polite nod, and buried her face in the menu. A cold trickle of sweat rolled over her rib cage and found its way to the waistband of her silk pants. It was incredibly exciting sitting beside them. Almost sexual in its intensity.
Carolann ordered the pumpkin soup and amberfish and watched them out of the corner of her eye while the waiters wove in and out of the room, bearing trays of silver-covered dishes.
Unlike Judith who, judging by the colour of her nose, had had too much sun, Carolann would not be going home with a tan. Her boss at Parkwood Life and Casualty thought she was visiting an old college friend in Winnipeg. The last she’d heard they still had snow.
The evening dragged slowly by. Carolann chatted with a few of the other guests in the lobby, then retired to her room for the night.
By the next morning, she was anxious to get started. After a huge breakfast of hot cakes, fruit and rolls, she ventured down to the salt-water pool, being careful not to sit in the sun.
While the other tourists lathered themselves with sun screen in anticipation of the afternoon ahead, Carolann pulled out the mystery novel she’d purchased for the trip.
Palm trees chattered in the warm breeze. Across the lawn at the tennis courts, the hotel’s resident pro was trying to drum up business with a demonstration of his serving skills. Carolann thought she saw Alex among the onlookers, but after a while, the heat and the rhythm of the ball put her to sleep.
She awoke with a start around 12:30, her book on the deck beside her, her feet rosy in the shifting sun. Alex and Judith were nowhere to be seen.
The entire patio was peopled with leather-skinned seniors, most of whom had been coming to the Chelsea for two or three decades. Carolann figured she could probably do away with half of them by simply sprinkling digitalis on their prunes.
When the afternoon wore on without even a glimpse of the honeymoon couple, Carolann started to worry. She only had one full day left.
She was lingering over a second cup of coffee when Alex and Judith finally brushed by her table in the dining room. It was after eight.
Alex gave her a polite nod and held out a chair for his wife.
“I don’t see why we can’t go shopping together,” Judith whined.
“Because one of the reasons I came to Bermuda was for the golf.” Alex signalled the sommelier.
“And for Mrs. Wright?”
“Let’s have a litre of that lovely white wine we had last night,” smiled Judith. “And could you have the waiter bring me a green salad? Oil and vinegar dressing.”
As soon as the wine steward left with their order, Judith started back at Alex. “Considering I spent the day on the back of a motorbike while all she needed to know.
After signing for her meal, she sauntered into the lounge and joined three old dears from Baltimore who had begged her earlier in the evening to make a fourth for bridge. They turned out to be sharks in pink polyester. After an hour of playing a penny a point, Carolann excused herself and headed for the bar.
She ordered something fruity and idly planned her day while she nibbled fish-shaped pretzels imported from the States.
It wasn’t as though she couldn’t accidentally murder anyone in Toronto. All she had to do was wait. Sooner or later, Judith would unwittingly leave herself exposed. Only Carolann would never have as good cover as she had right now.
When Alex’s reflection appeared in the window alongside hers, she was momentarily caught off-guard.
Their eyes locked for a second and he seemed to hesitate. Then he sat down at the bar and ordered a scotch.
“Will you wife be joining you?” asked the bartender.
“No,” Alex answered. “Her sunburn is bothering her.”
Good, thought Carolann. She hoped it would wrinkle and peel. Judith should live so long.
As if on cue, Alex turned and smiled at her.
Carolann gave him a half-wave and glanced away. She knew if he’d sat down beside her, one of them would have had to tell the truth.
* * *
After breakfast, Alex and Judith went off to Hamilton with several other couples in search of tax-free deals on Wedgewood and Royal Crown Derby.
Carolann was ready. She tagged along behind them, watching and waiting for the right opportunity. But by the time they’d done the stores on Front Street it was raining too heavily to loiter inconspicuously outside. Carolann caught the ferry back to the hotel.
By early afternoon, the rain had tapered off to a fine drizzle. Carolann borrowed a putter from the pro shop and joined the other die-hards on the course.
She was on the practice green when the Warwick ferry began its approach to the Chelsea’s dock.
A few minutes later, when Judith appeared, alone, her arms laden with purchases, Carolann quickly returned the club.
Predictably, Judith hurried for the entrance to the lower level where she could tidy herself before going upstairs.
Carolann crossed the lawn and entered the hotel as her prey disappeared into the women’s lounge.
She waited a moment or two until she was sure the hallway was deserted, then she pushed open the door. Judith was seated at the mirrors, the entire contents of her purse strewn across the counter.
Carolann quickly scanned the hodgepodge of make-up, cheque books and billfold, looking for the plastic cylinder she knew Judith carried with her everywhere.
It was poking out from under a soggy tissue, its bright yellow cap protecting the injector inside.
“You must have been caught in the rain,” noted Judith.
Carolann nodded. “I was playing golf.”
She set her peaked golf cap on the counter next to the tissue and asked the other woman if she played golf.
“No, but my husband does.”
“I didn’t notice him on the course today.”
Judith paused, a new lipstick hovering in her hand. “I made him take me into Hamilton.” She laughed. “I refuse to start my marriage on a budget…the last I saw him he was on his way to the bank.”
Good thing, thought Carolann, as she surveyed the array of bags before her.
Judith was so thrilled with her purchases from the expensive shops she favoured, she treated Carolann to a mini-show-and-tell right there in the ladies’ lounge.
Back home in Toronto, she wouldn’t have even given the real Carolann Gravelle the time of day.
She hadn’t missed anything, Carolann thought, as she cooed appreciatively at a cashmere sweater and a Burberry scarf. It was about as exciting as playing Barbie dolls.
They exchanged pleasantries about the hotel and Carolann asked Judith if she’d tried any of the restaurants in Hamilton.
“No, I have allergies. It’s safer to eat at a place where I know the food.”
“You’re very wise,” said Carolann, her eyes fixed firmly on Judith’s prescription for epinephrine. Then she smiled and said, “I guess I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”
She grabbed the peak of her golf hat and scooped it up along with Judith’s auto-injector. Then, bending down to tie her shoe, she flicked her ball cap and sent the life-saving device under the counter and behind the waste basket.
Judith didn’t even notice her leave.
Carolann hurried up the steps into the main lobby and around the corner to the dining room. The travel agent had assured her the Chelsea was unwavering in its routine. By noon each day, the evening menu was posted in a glass display case outside the dining room.
That night was The Bermuda Buffet. Billed as “a meal to remember,” Carolann savoured the irony as she rode the elevator up to the third floor.
The digital clock on the bed table read two-seventeen. She lay down on the bed and forced herself to breathe deeply. It would be supremely annoying if she had a heart attack now. She grinned at the confusion it would cause if Anita Johnston were to die twice.
The way Judith sashayed into the dining room that evening Carolann was sure she must be wearing on the of the day’s purchases. Even Alex was sporting a jacket Carolann had never seen before.
Carolann fingered the contents of her pocket gingerly. Guests were wandering in and out of the buffet room, filling their plates with hot and cold entrees.
Alex was on his second scotch when Judith got up. Carolann looked over and, for a moment, she could have sworn he knew exactly what she was up to. She flushed. Her mind was playing tricks on her. She got up from the table and followed Judith’s lead to the buffet.
After several days at the Chelsea, Carolann was counting on Judith sticking to what she knew she could eat without having to double-check on the ingredients.
Carolann filled her own plate with a generous helping of salad greens, then unobtrusively released the small vial of walnut oil into the house oil and vinegar and quickly moved on. She was halfway down the buffet line when Judith reached for the salad dressing.
Carolann returned to her table and tried to eat, but it was like waiting for someone to open a special gift on Christmas morning. The food felt strange in her mouth as she watched Judith pick at everything on her plate, but her salad.
Alex was still nursing his drink when Judith forked the first piece of lettuce into her mouth. Then another piece disappeared. Carolann held her breath. In less than thirty seconds, Judith began to wheeze.
It was an awful sound.
She clawed at her purse. Alex leapt up, his chair crashing to the floor. The other diners had stopped eating and were staring at the commotion, not yet sure what was happening.
Alex grabbed Judith’s purse and dumped it, frantically rifling its contents for her missing prescription. And elderly gentleman tried patting Judith on the back. Alex yelled at him to stop.
Carolann felt like she was watching a movie. Judith turned blue and fell heavily to the floor, her eyes screaming in panic. She thrashed amidst the chair legs, her limbs an agony of despair. Then with one last rasp, she fell silent, her new dress swirled around her like a shroud. It was all over.
The other diners were quickly herded into the lounge and given a reassuring drink. Carolann ordered a scotch and tried unsuccessfully to dredge up some compassion for the woman she’d just killed.
Snippets of conversation floated by.
“Such a shame.”
“And on her honeymoon, too.”
“The poor man.”
Nearly everyone had an anecdote from another time, another accident, another place. But no one mentioned murder.
Carolann drank a second scotch and watched the door for any sign of movement from Alex.
When he did appear, a few minutes later, his normally flawless complexion was pasty despite his light tan. As the ambulance attendants wheeled the stretcher through the lobby, the hotel manager stepped in front of Alex, blocking his progress.
Another man, who wore the bearing of authority along with the uniform, stopped the stretcher-bearers and discreetly lifted a corner of the white sheet covering Judith’s body.
It was the Bermuda Police.
“Why are they here?” asked Carolann. “It was an accident.”
One of the old dears from Baltimore was standing beside her.
“Just routine, dear,” she said. “When my Henry had a stroke on the eleventh fairway, they came to make sure I hadn’t bopped him on the head with a three iron…bridge?”
“No…no, thanks.” Carolann shook her head and quietly followed some of the other guests out onto the terrace. Now that the police were involved, it was crucial she get rid of the evidence.
A small group was heading down the hill to catch the ferry into Hamilton. Carolann fell in behind them and boarded the boat in their wake.
As they cut across the harbour, Carolann wandered away from the others and let her right hand dangle over the side of the boat.
She felt sick. The police were probably giving Alex the once over and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. She was half-afraid that even though Alex was innocent, the police might think he “misplaced” Judith’s epinephrine.
The spray from the prow of the boat beat a tattoo on her forearm as she slowly unclenched her hand. The empty glass vial slid from her grasp and disappeared beneath the waves.
* * *
After a restless night worrying about Alex, Carolann went down early for breakfast. The hotel workers, as usual, were the most well-informed people on the island.
The cleaning staff had found Judith’s prescription under the counter in the women’s washroom earlier that morning. The police had concluded that it had either fallen out of her purse and rolled out-of-sight or Judith had inadvertently kicked it to where it had lain undetected until the next day. Either way, Alex was off the hook.
Carolann breathed a sigh of relief and got on with her breakfast. She dawdled over her coffee, half-hoping Alex would appear, but given the circumstances, that was unlikely. She browsed in the lobby gift shop for a few moments, then went to her room to pack.
Bermuda no longer seemed so inviting. On her way back to the airport, the mingling scents of the island, which had so intrigued her on her arrival, now seemed cloying and cheap. Bermuda had begun to close in on her, and despite the charm of the pastel cottages lining its roads, she was in a panic to get off the island.
The flight home was uneventful, and other than a few routine questions to answer at Customs, Carolann had no trouble re-entering the country as Anita Johnston.
She took the airport limousine downtown and got out at the Royal York. Suitcase in hand, she dodged the traffic on Front Street and disappeared into the depths of Union Station.
After retrieving her change of clothes from the long-term locker, Carolann went straight to the women’s lounge. When she reappeared a few minutes later, it was as Carolann Gravelle.
She’d left the suitcase behind in an empty stall.
The glasses had been snapped in half and flushed down the toilet.
Rush-hour was well underway. Carolann navigated her way against the stream of people heading for the Go Train and caught a northbound subway. By the time she’d changed trains at Yonge and Bloor, she felt certain someone would have already walked off with the temporary wardrobe of Anita Johnston and any evidence of her Bermuda Short.
Carolann had no idea when Alex would be returning, so she went out to the airport every afternoon in time for Air Canada’s daily flight from Bermuda.
The family waiting beside her on Tuesday was so boisterous she almost missed him.
He was standing on the other side of the glass partition holding the same suitcase he’d used on their weekends together. His clothes hung on him as if he’d suddenly lost an enormous amount of weight, and there were purplish streaks beneath his eyes.
Carolann got to her feet.
The stress of dealing with the police and transporting Judith’s body back to Canada must have been too much for him. He had stopped just outside the door.
Then he saw her. Their eyes locked, and for a single second, Carolann knew she’d done exactly what he’d wanted all along.
She smiled as she began to walk towards him.
She was only a few steps away from him when a young blonde woman appeared at his side.
The woman must have been on the same flight; her face was well-tanned, and she carried a large shopping bag from The Bermuda Shoppe.
“Let’s share a cab downtown,” she said, and when Alex didn’t respond right away, she slipped her free arm through his solicitously. “There’s no one here to meet you, is there Alex?”
Carolann started forward, then stopped in mid-stride.
Alex was looking right at her when he said “no.”