“I WISH TO CORRECT something I said earlier,” Charlotte tells us. We are in Meredith’s car, on our way to Vision-Aide. “It does not necessarily have to be someone we spoke with or saw in–what did Hartunian call it–our sleuthing around?”
“Oh?” Meredith replies, her eyes peering ahead on a day of rain and slick roads.
“You see, the Village is a cornucopia for gossip. One person knows something, everyone knows it.”
“Ah,” I say, “a person we either questioned, or told information to, could have likely told others.”
“Not likely; certainly,” Charlotte says.
“That broadens the field,” Meredith says. “A hell of a lot more suspects if the whole retirement complex knows about us.”
She steers her car up a slight grade and over a small bridge spanning a creek that I can see is busy with too much water from the rainfall. In my hometown, we get virtually no rain until December, and then none again after April. These November showers are rather pleasant for me, though I can see how it makes Meredith work harder at the wheel.
“Considering the note,” Charlotte puts in, her eyes studying the road ahead, as if she were driving, “it still means that the person has to know where I live and how to maneuver the halls in Bigelow Village.”
‘Yes,” I say. “So perhaps that eliminates those we contacted away from the complex.”
“Hmm,” Charlotte ponders, “I don’t think so. We have no way of knowing who has visited in the past, and which, if any, outsiders were Claire’s friends. I knew her pretty well, but I live in a different hallway on the second floor. She was downstairs and closer to the dining hall and the front desk. In fact, because of her blindness, she was in a section where more intensive care took place. In her apartment is a buzzer that brings help within a couple of minutes.”
“So, an outsider could have been coming to see her, perhaps a friend, or at least someone she knew,and that person might have been helping her…with the medications,” I say, as if to myself.
“Ah,” Charlotte says, again gently contradicting, “but you see, the helper need not have been the murderer. The pill bottles might have been contaminated, and the friend, not knowing that, could have offered to help, when in reality, he or she was poisoning Claire.”
“Diabolical!” I say loudly.
“But then the friend is an unwitting accomplice,” Meredith says. “Well, I doubt that the officials would look at it that way. But, as you can see, that complicates matters.”
We have rolled into a small town and Meredith steers to the right and then turns sharply into the parking lot of a three-story building. The lot is nearly full since it services the Vision-Aide folks, a shoe store, a deli, a mom and pop clothing store, and a hamburger hut attached to the side of the larger building. It is later in the morning, and most who are going to work are already there. Few other cars seem to be moving about.
As we scurry in the rain to the eaves of the office building, I realize that in six days, I will return to California. If I hope to be in on any resolution of this horrible event, it will have to be in that span of time. Damn, even Sherlock Holmes sometimes took a few weeks to solve a murder. Well, perhaps Charlotte–or Detective Hartunian–can perform a miracle and crack the case in record time.
Why none of us thought to bring an umbrella or two, I don’t know, so we are pretty wet when we open the heavy glass door to the Vision-Aide building. Meredith seems annoyed by it, Charlotte unfazed,and I–well, I’m actually enjoying the rare feeling. We pass a hall mirror and I notice my face wet and flushed, a bead of water hanging like a dewdrop from my nose.
The interior door is also glass, and we can see through it a busy office with four employees on computers or phones. The one closest to the door, a middle-aged woman with sunny yellow hair, looks up, smiles, and says, “Hello there; may I help you?”
“We’re on the board at Bigelow Village,” Charlotte lies, “and are following up on the tragic death of one of our residents, Claire Hazelton. She was blind, and you folks were servicing her.”
“Oh,” the woman says in a husky voice. “One minute, please. Helen handles the Bigelow accounts.” She presses a small white button on her desk and a tall woman enters from around a corner in the interior. She has a smile–looks theatrical to me–plastered on her face, and strides toward us briskly.
“Helen Cumberland. How may I help you?”
I notice a large, silver cross on a chain around her neck, resting on her bare chest, revealing cleavage and a plentiful bosom. I have often wondered about women who flaunt their religious affiliation at the same time they flaunt their sexuality. Nothing basically wrong about that, but it does seem, to my naïve way of seeing things, like a contradiction. Helen Cumberland is wearing gloves, the same, thin, rubber variety that Charlotte wore when she inspected the pill bottles. Charlotte says, “The Board at Bigelow Village has asked us to follow up on the death of Claire Hazelton, one of your customers. We understand you were servicing her account.”
“Yes,” Ms. Cumberland says, pointing to a small circle of soft chairs in the waiting area. “Please sit down.”
She does not seem interested in our names and Charlotte does not volunteer them. Helen Cumberland is nearly six-feet tall, an imposing figure, yet she wears a muted beige suit, very business-like–in fact everything about her is business-like, except, I ponder, her low-cut top. Though perhaps I am wrong, since I am not in business per se. Displaying one’s skin may be a perfectly acceptable business gesture, designed, possibly, to attract potential clients.
“What we are interested in learning,” Charlotte says in a matter- of-fact tone, “is how Ms. Hazelton’s prescription labels were turned into braille labels. There is some concern that the labels of her pill containers did not match the contents of the bottles. We just want to tidy up all our information on her death.”
“We service dozens of vision-impaired clients, mostly elderly, every week,” Ms. Cumberland says. “Quite a few are at Bigelow. They get their prescriptions from the pharmacy, then approach us to make braille labels to cover the standard written labels. I monitored Ms. Hazelton’s account along with the others for Bigelow.”
“Ah,” Charlotte says, “and did you do that here at your offices, or did you visit her quarters in the Village?”
“Our clients usually stop in once a month, after getting new meds, and wait–right here, actually–while we alter their labels. We have special equipment, a braille typewriter, and it only takes twenty minutes to type up a dozen labels. In Ms. Hazelton’s case, I did visit her apartment twice over the past year, since she called to tell us that she did not have transportation.”
“So,” Meredith asks, “you have a portable braille typewriter?”
“Oh yes. Though a bit heavy, it is quite compact and easy to use. When we agree to make a home visit it is almost always for more than one client. In Ms. Hazelton’s case, at least the last time we did it, there were two others we serviced at the same visit.”
“Which was when?” Charlotte asks.
“Let me see…. I think it was…twelve days ago. Yes, I’m sure it was, because I had an appointment with my doctor, listed in my schedule book for that same day.” She pauses, and adds, “I suffer from fibromyalgia.”
Cumberland smiles as if to elicit sympathy, though the only reaction is from Charlotte who says, “Sorry to hear that. I’m sure you are on a regimen of pills and medicines yourself for that affliction.”
“Unfortunately, yes. It is an illness that causes fatigue and cuts into sleep. I take a combination of meds, carefully monitored, of course.”
“Getting back to Ms. Hazelton,” I say, “when you visited her twelve days ago, did she seem healthy to you? No unusual symptoms?”
“Well, I didn’t know her all that well, but she seemed as she al- ways seemed. Aside from her blindness, she was a sturdy woman–or so I thought. Of course, God works in mysterious ways, and we never know when we will be summoned.”
“Yes,” Meredith says, “and her death was a surprise. She was pretty vigorous when I last saw her, which was maybe two weeks ago.”
“I wasn’t aware the board actually visited the clients at Bigelow. That’s very thorough.”
“So, you covered the pharmacy labels with braille labels at that time. Did you also administer any doses to her?” Charlotte asks.
“No, of course not. That is not part of our work. Our job is to help the client to help herself. I wasthere around ten in the morning, and I would imagine she had already taken her prescribed daily doses by then.”
“One other question, Ms. Cumberland,” Charlotte says softly, but with a bite in her voice, as if asserting ‘and I expect an answer.’ “Do you have any recollection at all of what the labels on Claire Hazelton’s pill containers read?”
“Oh my, no. We have far too many requests for me to keep them in my mind. However, our braille writers not only produce the labels, but keep a record of what was printed out. I can retrieve that information for you, if you like.”
“That would be nice. Can you do it now? We’ll be happy to wait.”
Ms. Cumberland rises–she looks even taller–and moves back into the interior of her offices. When she is gone, Charlotte says, “Impressive woman. Fills up a room. But I get a clear sense of resentment coming from her.”
“Resentment?” Meredith asks.
“You catch her religious references? She must have known that Claire had none. Resentment. Who knows what resentment can lead to?”
“Damn,” I mutter, “just when I think I know who might have wanted to hurt Claire, someone else leaps out in front.”
“My grandmother was a sweet woman, but with strong beliefs. I can see where she could have alienated certain groups or individuals with opposite strong beliefs.”
“Certainly,” Charlotte says, “and she could have alienated some folks over things other than beliefs.Don’t forget about the police har- assment issues when she was younger; some people never forget. And also remember her partner, with whom she broke up–resentment can certainly be a byproduct of rejection.”
Charlotte’s ruminations make my head spin. They introduce all sorts of possibilities. Motives are personal and deep, and nobody from the outside can be sure of what stirs a person from the inside.
Ms. Cumberland strides around the back desk and heads toward us, her right arm extended. When she arrives she says tersely, “Here. This is a record of what we printed out from the last visit. Those labels are what ought to be on the bottles.”
“Thank you,” Charlotte says graciously. “You have been very helpful.”
“Of course; it is my pleasure.” Almost as an afterthought, and certainly spoken with disregard for theconsequences, Helen Cumber- land turns to move back to her workplace. “Believers and disbelievers alike are taken,” she says imperiously. “The difference is where they go.”
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!