DAYS IN THE FALL are short, and the afternoon light seems prematurely subverted by the encroaching darkness. If it had a voice, the brightness might complain: Unfair to take me away before I have filled up people’s lives with light. Just my romantic non sequitur as I think about us driving toward Meredith.
We fill Meredith in on what Oscar said, and though it takes some doing to get permission, as the last rays of sunlight careen through the leafless maples outside her window, Charlotte returns to her apartment with the key to Claire’s.
The long halls that connect the wings of the Village are illuminated by bulbs in the shape of little torches, set high up on the walls. Even with the lighting, in the twilight, the tunnels seem eerie and ominous. I doubt I would perceive it so if we were not pursuing some culprit, someone with the capacity for evil. I am not usually morose, or even suspicious.
It often surprises me when things work out as planned. I recall setting up a rendezvous with a friendin London, on a corner near his bed-and-breakfast place. I told him my flight number, he told me how far his spot was from Heathrow, and we set the time for meeting. I came up, out of the underground, and therehe was, grinning, with his hand out. Bowled me over that there were no glitches in our arrange- ments. Perhaps I am a bit suspicious, after all, at least of serendipity.
This scheme also goes as planned. Charlotte slips the key she was given into the lock in Claire’s door, saying, “I told them she was my best friend, and her granddaughter and I needed to go over her things.”
Voila! It works. The door opens.
“They’ll be coming in soon to clean out her quarters so they can lease them out to someone else. It’s a business, you know.”
“Yes,” Meredith says. “They informed me that if there’s anything I want, it needs to be removed by next Saturday. Whatever’s left behind will either be thrown away or donated to charity.”
“A life dwindles down to things,” I say. “Possessions identify us. We are what we own.”
“True,” Charlotte says, “and if one of our residents is alone in the world, without family, her entire existence here is erased inside of a month.”
The thought of Charlotte being so erased hits me in the chest. Charlotte is my dear sister; her lifebeing erased is something I vow to myself I will not allow. Charlotte enters with her usual confidence. The flat looks as if nothing catastrophic has happened, everything in place, braille books on a coffee table, a music system along a far wall, and a television prominent, though the viewing was obviously for her visitors. The kitchen is neat and clean, no dishes anywhere, even in the drainer–order one might expect in a four-star restaurant, ready for inspection.
Charlotte heads at once for the bathroom. Since there was no indication of a crime, there are no yellow police streamers, and no markings where Claire’s body was discovered.
I am stunned at what Charlotte does next. From a pocket in the apron-like blouse she is wearing, she pulls out a pair of thin rubber gloves and slips them on.
“I saw it on television,” she says, looking chagrined at our stares.
“Hey, go for it,” I say.
Meredith says, “Why do I feel as if you always know the right thing to do?”
“Because Charlotte does,” I reply.
“Go easy on the praise,” Charlotte says. “I’m as amateurish as the two of you. I try to think ahead, that’s all. With people who break the law, one must be ahead of them.”
“Can’t imagine anyone getting the jump on you, Sis,” and there is pride in my voice.
“Well,” she says, and she is smiling at me, “let’s see what we come up with.”
The medicine cabinet is standard, though once opened I can see that the shelves actually have braille on them as an aide for a blind person. Everything seems to have been structured to keep Claire from making errors.
Carefully, one by one, Charlotte lifts each item from its shelf, examines its label, and sets it on the lid of the back of the toilet. In a few moments there are twenty small containers side by side. My sister seems to pause, then peers down acutely at her collection, perusing them with what seems to me a practiced eye.
As if in deliberate contradiction, she says, “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
Meredith and I glance at each other, and Meredith says, almost incredulously, “You don’t?”
“Well,” comes the reply, “the usual labels on medications have been replaced by braille figures so Claire would know what capsules she was taking.” She pauses, and then adds, “What it means is that if someone had offered to help her and instead fed her the toxic pills, that person would have needed to know what was in each container, or understand braille.”
Brilliant! My big sis is indeed an amazing sleuth.
“Who would have changed the labels to braille?” Meredith asks.
“There is a center on blindness that cooperates with our facility, since so many of our residents have failing eyesight. It’s called Vision-Aide. I’m sure Claire was serviced by them, so that may need to be our next stop.”
Again, as if she knows exactly what to do, Charlotte slides all the bottles into a plastic bag, also dug out from her apron pocket.
“We’ll take these with us. At some point, the local gendarmes need to get involved. These containers may produce prints or other leads.”
As we leave Claire’s apartment, Charlotte says, “It might be helpful to count the remaining pills in each bottle and match their number with the dates Oscar has for their purchase.”
Since it is evening, and too late to follow up with Vision-Aide, we return to Charlotte’s apartment, and she offers us glasses of what she pleasingly describes as “One of those wonderful California wines.”
It is not until we are seated in sort of a triangle facing the television, that Meredith says, “What’s that slip of paper on the carpet?”
We had stepped right over it, but there, only a few inches in from the door, is a folded sheet of amber-colored paper.
“Hmm,” Charlotte says, and goes to retrieve it. She sits back down, reads the note, and holds it up for the two of us to see.
In cut-out letters, taken from what appears to be newspaper print, we see:
YOU ARE INTERFERING. YOU ARE CAUSING TROUBLE. BACK OFF.
“Uh-oh,” I say.
“Well,” Meredith says, “that erases any doubt about accidental overdoses.”
Charlotte looks thoughtful, and at last says, “We need to think clearly about two things: whom are we threatening, and what access does that person have to these surroundings?”
“Your apartment is only a few steps from the elevator, so someone could have slipped the paper under your door without much fuss. But still, the person had to know which your place is.”
“More than that,” Charlotte responds. “She or he would also have to know what we’ve been up to. So, we may be talking about a person we’ve been in touch with the last few days.”
My mind begins to race over all the folks, both in and out of the Village, whom we’d encountered, their reactions and interest in our search. But besides all that, the implication behind the letter sends a chill up my spine.
“Charlotte,” I say, “this is a clear threat to you. Subtle as Claire’s death may have been, there is no guarantee that the perpetrator will be as subtle next time.”
I catch a fleeting look of fear in Charlotte’s eyes, and then a quick dismissal as she says, “At my age, threats aren’t all that fierce.” She smiles wanly. “I’ll have to watch what I eat in the dining room.”
“What about the police?” I ask. “Isn’t this enough proof that something nasty is going on? Shouldn’t we bring them in on it?”
“I agree,” Meredith says. “Grandmother was deliberately killed, the killer is demented and could be dangerous, and the authorities need to be consulted.”
“Salud!” Charlotte says, and raises her wine glass. “The wine comes first.”
If you’re enjoying CHARLOTTE and would like to blog about book two in the series, ACCIDENT, please contact my publisher who will hook you up with a free copy!