Eden Palms Murder


(Time: Monday afternoon)


The mid-afternoon storm arrived without notice.  Lightning slashed through black thunderheads, and wind screamed in from Hawk Channel, threatening Key West on this wintry afternoon.  Palms bent in the onslaught.  Surprised gulls fluttered a moment then dropped like stones onto the beach where they huddled together for protection.  The weather matched my mood.  I turned my back to the wind and strode away from the sea, heading toward Eden Palms.

            I had no trouble entering the Shipton mansion in Old Town.  Locals throughout the island knew Francine as an outgoing hostess who welcomed friends and family whether or not they called ahead to announce their impending arrival.  Gaining access to the upstairs, the home’s second floor suite that Francine claimed as her private quarters, was sometimes more difficult, but not for me.

            “Hello, hello,” Francine called through her front doorway when she saw me on her veranda.  “Do come inside.  I’m getting ready for this evening’s meeting—plumping the pillows and all that.  This cold snap’s supposed to blow itself out quickly.”  She gave me a puzzled look.  “Is there some problem?”

            “Not at all.” The wind blew the screen door shut with a bang when I stepped into the spacious foyer and bent to kiss her cheek.  “You’ve a big evening ahead of you and I wondered if you might need some help before your guests arrive.”  I glanced around, seeing nothing amiss.  “Need some chairs carried into the solarium?  Extra ice toted to the freezer?  How many people are you expecting?”

            “Just a handful—my near neighbors.  Of course they’re among the strongest protestors.  Want to convince them to see the situation from my viewpoint.”

            I looked up the curving stairway.  On the balcony, I saw the thing I’d expected to see—the inlaid teakwood card table Francine always used to serve coffee.  The situation couldn’t have been more perfect. 

“I know you’re counting on using that card table, Francine.  You shouldn’t try to carry something that big and awkward down the steps.  Let me give you a hand.”  Francine smiled and I started up the steps before she could argue.  Counting each polished step from one to twenty-three helped divert my thoughts from the horror I knew was to come.

“That would be a help.” 

Francine followed me up the steps.  At the top of the staircase she picked up a blue dust cloth lying on the table. 

“I started to dust, but I got sidetracked.”  She began swishing the cloth across the table.

I took the cloth from her.  “Let me do that for you, please.”  I took my time brushing non-existent dust from the table legs, all the time jostling her just enough to get her in the best position possible.

            “Oh, look, downstairs.”  I nodded toward the veranda doorway.  “You have more guests.”

            She looked, and in that moment I acted.  Placing both my hands on her hipbones, I gave her a hard shove.  Her scream gurgled into silence when her head cracked against the banister and her body thudded down, down, down the glossy steps.  Now I clutched the pistol I’d hidden in my jacket pocket.  I waited.  Her head lay skewed at an odd angle and she didn’t move.  I wouldn’t need the gun.  . 

            I dashed down the stairs, felt for her pulse, found none.  Then reaching into my other pocket, I pulled out the dead blacksnake.  I knew the medical examiner would know she hadn’t died from snakebite or from suffocation, but I also knew the shock value of seeing the snake would give both the police and the town gossips much to speculate about in the days to come.  Who hated socialite Francine Shipton enough to murder her?  Who?

            I wrapped the blacksnake around her neck twice before I pried her mouth open and stuffed the snake’s head between her teeth and on down her throat.  The wind had died down by the time I stepped back onto the veranda.  In an unusual stillness, I headed for home


(Monday evening)

Later, I told myself that if I’d flown to Key West on a morning flight I might have saved Francine’s life.  But it didn’t happen that way. 

I’m Bailey Green, jazz pianist, vocalist, composer.  On this Monday night, I landed at Key West International at seven-thirty as scheduled, expecting our family friend, Francine Shipton, to meet me.  She would drive me to her Eden Palms estateand the guest cottage that she’d agreed to rent to me a year ago.   

I’d been accused of murdering the owner of the piano bar where I played and sang on weekends in Des Moines.  I’d been acquitted of the crime and the true culprit had been imprisoned, but I felt my name had been sullied.  I wanted and needed a new start.  I needed Key West—and Francine.

Goodbye small town gossip.  Goodbye snow.  Hello tradewinds.  I’d hoped that leaving Iowa and living in the Keys would lighten my spirits, but no.  Tonight, the memory of my trial and then of Mother’s funeral left me with an inner chill I couldn’t shake.  I found it hard to believe that the locals called this island Paradise.

A flight attendant led me and the six other passengers on our feeder aircraft down a few precarious steps from the plane to the concrete runway.

“You’ll find your luggage at the baggage claim area at the end of the terminal,” she said.  “Thank you for flying Air Sunshine.  We’ve enjoyed having you aboard and wish you a pleasant stay on the island.”

“Thank you,” I murmured, then strolled toward the baggage claim area. 

No point in hurrying.  A ground crew would be loading our suitcases onto a cart for the next few minutes.  My comfort-food gene kicked in and I pulled a miniature Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup from my pocket, unwrapped it, and savored its chocolate fragrance before popping it into my mouth.  I wished government nutritionists would relieve my guilt by naming chocolate one of the four basic food groups.

  Inhaling deeply, I hoped for a welcoming scent of night-blooming jasmine.  Instead, I almost choked on a lungful of diesel exhaust.  Once inside the terminal, I breathed the odor of stale cigarette smoke.  I let others scramble to reclaim their bags while I scanned the waiting area and then the street looking for Francine. 

Night blanketed the island.  Overhead a skein of clouds half-masked an almost- full moon and a sprinkling of stars, and I caught the salt aroma of the sea.  I stood for a moment enjoying the warm breeze as I peered at the almost-empty parking lot.  No Francine.  A few taxis waited at curbside near the baggage claim exit and I ducked back into the terminal to avoid a vendor with a tray of trinkets hanging from a strap around his neck. 

I couldn’t imagine Francine running late.  She always prided her self on her promptness.  Others ran late—never Francine Shipton.  The baggage carousel began moving, groaning a bit under its load of suitcases, golf clubs, packing boxes, fishing gear.  I spotted my two green cases, and had dragged them to the floor when someone called my name. 

‘Bailey?  Bailey Green?”

I whirled around.  To my astonishment, the voice belonged to Quinn Bahama.  Quinn’s a free-lance reporter for the Citizen, and she makes no secret of her goal to work up to a staff writer position.   We aren’t close friends, just acquaintances who admire each other’s work. 

All the locals know Quinn.  She also waits tables at the Two Friends Patio, hoping to meet a celebrity who’ll grant her an interview.  Lots of service people work two jobs in their effort to pay their bills here in Paradise.  Quinn also haunts the airport hoping to see some well-known people who’ll give her a few minutes of their time.  Like most performers, I never run from a chance for publicity, and Quinn’s a good writer.  Readers can depend on her for accuracy in the what’s, when’s, who’s and where’s of her articles. 

Tonight, Quinn wore a red satin caftan and matching spike-heeled sandals.  The humidity made her curly hair look like a golden chrysanthemum, and her smile reached clear to her blue eyes.  Looking at Quinn made most people want to smile back.  And I smiled.

“Hello, Quinn.” 

“Been away for awhile?” 

Quinn eyed my green parka and my two matching bags.  Successful performers tell me the best kind of advertising is word-of-mouth, so I surround myself in green in what I hope is a subtle attempt to promote my name and my gigs at The Sandbar on Front Street in Old Town. 

 “Been in Iowa for almost three months.  Hope people still remember me.”  I slipped off my fleece-lined parka, tossed it over my arm, and felt like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.  “It’s winter-coat cold up North.” 

“Business or pleasure trip?”

“I went home to take care of my mother.  She recently passed away after a long bout with cancer.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

Quinn did look sorry and I tried to lighten the moment.  “It’s really good to be back in Key West.  Francine Shipton promised to meet me, but so far I haven’t seen her.”

“Could I give you a lift somewhere?” 

“That’s kind of you, but no thanks.  Something important must have delayed Francine.  I’m sure she’ll show in a few minutes.”

“Would you use those minutes to give me an interview?” Quinn began rolling one of my bags toward a bench beside the wall.

I hesitated, torn.  I needed publicity, but Francine would arrive soon.  “Well, okay.  Maybe we’ll have time for a quickie.  And I’ll make a deal with you.”  I tapped the camera I always wear around my neck.  “Trade you a brief interview for a pic.”  I followed her, wheeling the second bag.

“Why would you want my picture?” Quinn asked.

“I snap shots of eye-catching people and places.  Sometimes I draw on my photos to help me create lyrics for a new song.  I’m still writing a lot of my own stuff.”

Quinn, smiled, posed, and I clicked a shot.  “What would you like to talk about?”

“Your performing and song writing, of course.”  Quinn pulled a small notepad and a ballpoint from a caftan pocket.  We sat down beside each other on the bench.  “Got any new titles to introduce to the public?  Or maybe to a record company?”

“No.  But I’m working on a few ideas.”  No point in advertising that I’d had a writer’s block all during the time I’d spent in Iowa.

“It’s hard to record a first album and get it before the public,” Quinn said, “even with a great demo tape.  And sometimes getting a contract for a second album is even harder.”

“Yeah.  I know.  I had a company interested, but I missed a deadline and I was too busy with Mom to ask for an extension.”

“Asking for extensions can be dangerous.  Couldn’t you have hired a part-time housekeeper to care for your mother?”

“In my mind, that was never an option.”  I didn’t elaborate.  I hated missing my deadline, but family came first.  Mom had needed me.  Missing deadlines might not bother secure musicians, so I hid my insecurity from Quinn and the world and sometimes from myself.  I’d given up a good teaching job in the school system to write lyrics and perform, and I still had to prove to myself that I’d made the right choice.  “Once I get settled in again at Eden Palms, I’ll go back to playing and singing again.”

“You couldn’t compose anything in Iowa?  Well, I suppose taking care of your mother took most of your time.”

“Yes, it did.  And no, I didn’t work at all in Iowa.”  I began to worry about where this interview might lead.  Clearly, Quinn wanted information about my compositions and I had nothing new to offer.  It saddened me to talk about my mother’s death.  I didn’t dare talk about my brother, Chet, who’d left Iowa and been assigned a new identity through the Federal Witness Protection Program. 

 “Can you tell me about any songs you’re planning to write?”

I glanced at the doorway, hoping to see Francine.  “Sorry Quinn, but I

can’t.  If I talk about a song before I write it, it weakens my desire to write.”  I hesitated, afraid that Quinn might give up on me as a news source and leave.  “But here’s an idea.  Maybe we could talk about my life in a way that would be meaningful to other musicians as well as to other mothers and daughters.”

“Sure,” Quinn agreed.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Hold it a minute, okay?  I need to check to see if Francine’s outside.”  I walked to the doorway, stepped onto the sidewalk, and scanned the parking lot.  Still no Francine.  I returned to Quinn, and for the next twenty minutes or so I told her about my growing-up years and my relationship with my mother.  Would anyone be interested, I wondered.

But when I finished my tale, Quinn flashed a thumbs up. 

 “That’s a touching story, Bailey.”  She glanced at her watch then stood.  “Tell you what.  The Citizen’s short a staff writer this week—flu.  If I get this story written and to the editor tonight, you may be able to read it in tomorrow’s paper. The publicity will be my welcome home gift to you.”

“Wonderful, Quinn.  I’ll be looking for your article.” 

Quinn made brief notes on her notepad, then smiled.  “Francine’s certainly taking her time getting here.  Sure I can’t give you a ride?  No problem.  Everything’s close by here in Paradise.”

“Thanks, Quinn, but as sure as I accept your generosity, Francine will arrive and be unable to find me.  I’ll phone her again.  Great talking to you. I’ll look forward to reading your article.”

Quinn blew me a kiss then left the terminal.

I keyed Francine’s number on my cell phone.  Busy.  Another plane landed and taxis appeared like homing pigeons.  As I buried my cell phone in my purse, my fingers touched the strange note Francine had sent me in Iowa.  I pulled it from its envelope, flattened it on my knee, and began re-reading it while I enjoyed another peanut butter cup.  She had promised to meet me, hadn’t she?

Dear Bailey,

            I can hardly wait for your return to Key West, and I’ll meet your 7:30 plane and drive you to Eden Palms.  Strange things are afoot here, occurrences I don’t understand, and I’m frightened.  I’ve received threats, and mysterious events been happening here in my home.  With your creative bent, maybe you’ll be good at following clues.  Maybe you can help explain some of these unusual occurrences.  Maybe you can explain why I’m finding snakes in the solarium.  I know you’ll be tired from traveling when you arrive, but I want you to attend an important 8:30 meeting here at Eden Palms.

                                                                        Warmly, Francine.

            I shoved the note back into my purse then stepped outside to scan the parking lot one more time.  No Francine.  Why hadn’t she sent Zack to meet me if she couldn’t make it herself?  But maybe her son had a date.  Maybe he wasn’t at home.  I wished I hadn’t re-read the note.  In spite of the warm evening, goose bumps prickled my arms.  I felt a hidden threat behind every palm tree on the premises.  Even the tradewind carried a scent of danger.

            One more try with the cell phone told me its battery had died.  I pulled change from my pocket and tried the pay phone nearby.  Again, the busy signal.  I decided to wait no longer.  But when I headed toward a pink taxi parked at the curbing, the trinket vendor I’d avoided earlier blocked my path.  I swerved to the right, he stepped in front of me.  I darted left, he darted too.  I couldn’t get around him.