Bloodroot: New Excerpt

Bloodroot by Cynthia Riggs is the 12th Martha's Vineyard Mystery (Available May 3, 2016).

It's just another day at the dentist's office for Victoria Trumbull when fellow patient, wealthy Mrs. Wilmington, dies. It's an unfortunate, though seemingly not murderous incident, but the receptionist is hysterical, so one of the dental assistants offers to drive her home. But after making a quick pit stop, he finds her body floating in the harbor.

With the police shorthanded due to an upcoming presidential visit, it's up to Victoria to take on the case. As she wrestles with her ex-son-in-law, a $3 million will, and a deadly dental clinic, Mrs. Trumbull discovers that nothing in the case is quite what it seems.

CHAPTER 1

After the last guest left, the four Wilmington grandchildren gathered on the front porch, Heather and Susan on the swing, Scott in an Adirondack chair facing the view of pasture and the wide sweep of ocean beyond, and Wesley on a porch rocker.

“Glad that’s over,” said Wesley, a redhead and the youngest of the four. “My face hurts from smiling.”

It was a fine June afternoon and all four were barefoot, the two women in ragged cutoff jeans that just covered what needed to be covered, Wesley in equally ragged but longer jeans, and Scott in neatly pressed chinos.

“Well,” Wesley continued, “it’s good to be with you guys again. You know, we ought to get together more often.”

“Not here.” Heather shook her head and her blond ponytail swung across her back. “At least not while she’s around.” She jerked her head at the house behind them. “Once every ten years is just fine.”

“How did Grandmother talk the rest of you into this so-called annual visit?” asked Wesley. He leaned forward in the rocker. “I went along only because she said all of you were coming.”

Scott, the eldest of the four, dark-haired and heavyset with a full beard, was resting his feet on the porch railing. “Threats,” he muttered. He looked over his shoulder at his brother and sisters. “Mildred said if I didn’t show up for her ‘annual visit’”—he made quote marks in the air with his fingers—“she’d cut me out of her will.”

“What?” Susan leaned forward in the swing. Her hair, unlike her younger sister’s, was cut short and curled around her face. “She said that? And stop calling her Mildred. It’s disrespectful to Grandmother.”

“Oh yeah? She deserves our respect?” said Wesley.

“To answer your question, Sue, the implication was clear.” Scott turned back to the view. “Glad the fog cleared.”

“She must be feeling mortal or something,” said Heather. She and Susan were both tall blue-eyed blondes and both needed to lose a bit of weight.

Wesley pushed his foot against the porch floor, setting his rocking chair into motion. “I got the same message. The old lady sent me a lavender-scented note, ‘The others will be here. If you value your future, you’ll be here, too.’ Like that, only more subtly worded.”

“Speaking of lavender scents, Heather,” said Scott, looking over his shoulder again, “what’s that perfume you’re wearing? Nice. Smells like money.”

“Thanks. It’s Dior’s Midnight Poison.”

Wesley laughed. “You suppose we could give a bottle to Mildred?”

“There must be something cheaper.” Scott turned back to the view.

“This is all very funny, you guys, but I have to live with her,” said Susan.

“So leave,” said Heather.

“Oh, sure,” said Susan.

“How can you stand it?” Heather asked.

Susan shrugged. “I manage.”

Wesley’s chair clicked rhythmically over the uneven floorboards. “How’s about us getting together someplace else next time? Not in another ten years. We may all be dead by then.”

“Like, where?” asked Heather.

“What about your place, Scott?”

“You talking to me?” Scott glanced back over his shoulder “Me? After Bitch-Ex cleaned me out, I’m living under the railroad bridge in a cardboard box drinking Ripple.”

“Ripple’s long gone,” said Wesley. “Get with it, bro.”

“What happened? Did you give her the house?” asked Heather.

Scott looked affronted. “The Honorable Ms. Judge did so.”

“At least you got to keep half,” said Susan.

“Surely you jest.” Scott placed his hand over his heart. “I’ve barely got my skin.”

Wesley turned to Heather. “Be fun to meet in LA.”

Heather got the swing going with a push of her foot. “I live in one upstairs room in a house with about twenty druggies. And a shared bath. And a hotplate.”

“How can you afford Midnight Poison?” asked Scott.

“The magic of plastic cards.” Heather turned to Wesley. “What about you, Idea Man? Oklahoma City sounds like a fun town.”

“Could be,” said Wesley. “I’m never there.”

“Cops after you again?” asked Scott without turning his head.

“I ain’t afraid of no cops.” Wesley gave another push with his foot.

“That bad, eh?” Scott grinned. “Poor investments?”

“You could say that.”

“Looks like Grandmother’s place is it,” said Susan.

“We could all meet under Scott’s bridge,” said Wesley.

“Share his neighbor’s Ripple,” said Heather.

“Probably nicely aged by now,” said Wesley.

“If I can put up with her for ten years all by my lonesome,” Susan put in, “you can deal with her for a week.”

“Miz Sue, if I have to be around that woman for another week, either she’ll be dead or…” Scott didn’t finish.

Wesley laughed. “Is that a promise?”

*   *   *

“Ouch!” Victoria Trumbull winced. It was two days after Mrs. Wilmington’s reception for her visiting grandchildren. Victoria was standing by the sink, where she’d bitten into a slice of apple.

Elizabeth, her granddaughter, was passing through the kitchen on her way to her car. Elizabeth was as tall as her grandmother, who was almost six feet tall.

“That tooth again, Gram?” Elizabeth was dressed in khaki slacks and white uniform shirt for her job at the Oak Bluffs harbor.

“Only a small slice of apple,” said Victoria, her gnarled hand up to her jaw. “I’d even peeled off the skin.”

“Is the dental clinic open? Want me to call for you?”

“I’ll call.” Victoria reached for the telephone. “I suppose I’d better act mature about this.”

“If you can get an appointment now, I’ll take you. I don’t have to be at work for a while.” Elizabeth picked up the slice of apple that Victoria had dropped and put it in the compost bucket. “The upcoming presidential visit means the harbor is crazy busy.”

*   *   *

Two hours later, Victoria was at the clinic, listening intently to her dentist’s tale of how she’d extracted the eyetooth of a lightly sedated Bengal tiger. Victoria had dressed in her gray corduroy slacks and turtleneck shirt with tiny rosebuds printed on it. She was reclined in the chair, her mouth full of cotton. A paper bib covered her chest and she didn’t want to dwell on what Dr. Demetrios was about to do. Dr. Ophelia Demetrios seemed far too attractive and much too young to know what she was doing.

Victoria clenched the tissue she’d been given. It had become a tight damp wad in her perspiring hand. “Lightly sedated,” Dr. Demetrios repeated, pulling her mask down below her chin. “The zoo thinks a tiger is more valuable than I am!” She touched her chest with a gloved hand, rolled her large, moist dark eyes, and pursed her mouth into a pink rosebud. “The keepers warned me—there were four of them—that if the tiger should open his eyes…!”

“Umpf,” said Victoria.

Dr. Demetrios returned to her patient. “Just a slight prick, Mrs. Trumbull, then a gentle tug. Is your jaw numb enough yet?”

Not knowing how numb it should be, Victoria shook her head.

“Just think, Mrs. Trumbull, here you are, ninety-two,” Dr. Demetrios said brightly, “and you’re growing a wisdom tooth.” She patted Victoria’s shoulder. “That means you are very wise.”

Victoria, annoyed by the condescension, was about to protest when a scream from a cubicle down the hall made her sit up.

Dr. Demetrios dropped the instrument she’d been about to poke into Victoria’s mouth. She planted both gloved hands on the top of her head, mussing her shiny blue-black hair, which had been pulled back into a tidy bun.

Victoria spat gauze and cotton into the nearby basin and swiveled around. “What was that?” She set her feet on the floor.

“I knew that would happen.” Dr. Demetrios ran her latex covered hands down her elegantly carved cheekbones. “He should never have hired that, that ignoramus, that, that malakas.

A second scream echoed down the hall, weaker than the first.

Victoria stood up. The paper bib twisted over her shoulder. She tossed her wadded up tissue onto the chair and brushed past Dr. Demetrios into the hallway that led to the reception area.

Patients, bibs askew, popped out of rooms on either side.

Dr. Horace Mann, the clinic’s director, burst out of his office door and hurried toward the cubicle from which the sound was coming.

“What the hell?” A large middle-aged man popped out of another cubicle, tore off his bib, and threw it on the floor.

A series of lesser screams subsided into a series of coughs. Then retching sounds.

In the cubicle there was the sound of raised voices, feet rushing back and forth, metal instruments dropping on the floor.

A young woman Victoria recognized as Susan Wilmington, one of the four Wilmington grandchildren, was in the waiting room, standing, frozen, her hands up to her mouth, a magazine splayed at her feet. She was wearing a blue denim skirt and sandals and had sunglasses perched on the top of her short blond hair.

“Oh, my dear God!” Mrs. Hamilton, an acquaintance of Victoria’s, who had been sitting in the reception area, rushed over to Victoria and grasped her arm with both hands. “Oh, Mrs. Trumbull, what shall we do? What was that?”

“I’m sure everything is under control, Mrs. Hamilton,” Victoria assured her, not certain herself that everything was under control.

When Dr. Mann dashed out of his office, he’d left the door wide open. He now stood in front of the cubicle from which the screams had come, blocking it from view. His forehead was beaded with sweat. He was a tall, slender man in his early forties with light reddish-brown hair, wearing an open white lab coat. From the sounds that came from the room, two people were rushing back and forth. Dr. Mann turned to the people gathering around him. Under his lab coat he wore a blue shirt and a tie with blue and white stripes. He adjusted the tie nervously. “There’s been an accident,” he said. “Please go back to your rooms.”

Susan stumbled over to him. “My grandmother? Is that my grandmother?”

“The ambulance is on its way. Please go back to your seat.”

“What happened?” Susan stared wide-eyed at him.

“Has someone called 911?” asked Victoria.

“Yes, yes.” Dr. Mann wiped his forehead with a blue bordered handkerchief he’d snatched out of his pocket. “The ambulance is on its way. Everyone, please! Go back to where you were!”

The large man headed for the door. “I’m outta here.” He clumped down the outside steps leaving the door open, muttering over his shoulder, “I sure as hell don’t want someone messing around in my mouth after that.”

“I have to agree,” Victoria said to Mrs. Hamilton. “Surely, no one will have a steady hand after such a commotion.”

From the small room came the sound of moans. Susan grasped Dr. Mann’s arm. “Please! Is it my grandmother?”

He shook her hand off his arm. “We’re taking care of everything.”

A siren wailed to a stop in front of the clinic. Two EMTs, a slim blond man and an equally slim young woman, carried a stretcher up the steps and into the cubicle two rooms from where Victoria had been. She recognized them as fellow West Tisbury voters, Jim and Erica.

More sirens whimpered down, and both Edgartown and West Tisbury police arrived. Two Edgartown officers hurried into the building, closely followed by West Tisbury’s police chief, Mary Kathleen O’Neill, also known as Casey, and Junior Norton, her sergeant.

Casey glanced quickly around the reception room. When she saw Victoria she stopped abruptly. “How did you get here before we did?”

Victoria was Casey’s police deputy. After Victoria had backed into the Meals on Wheels van Casey confiscated her license. When she offered to give Victoria a ride whenever she needed, Victoria climbed into the shotgun seat and that was it. Casey soon discovered how valuable Victoria’s knowledge of the Island was and presented her with a hat that read WEST TISBURY POLICE DEPUTY in gold stitching across the front.

Before Victoria could answer, Casey demanded, “What are you doing here, Victoria?”

“I was having some dental work done.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s a patient down the hall who doesn’t sound all right. It may be Mildred Wilmington.”

“I’ll talk to you later. We’re up to here”—Casey brought a hand up to her chin—“with the presidential visit. I don’t need this.” She left to join the EMTs and others in the cubicle.

Victoria’s jaw felt quite numb.

She thought of the screams. She thought of Dr. Demetrios’s shaking hand. She thought of that troublesome wisdom tooth, and she thought of having to go through this entire process again. Getting up her nerve to call for another appointment. The countdown to the day, the hour. The sitting in the waiting room with its array of outdated magazines, listening to the receptionist make appointments for other sufferers. The desultory conversation around her that she could never focus on. The sound of the drill …

She thought of the poor patient two cubicles from hers, the screams and retching. What dental procedure could cause such a reaction? Perhaps she could put up with that troublesome tooth.

And she thought of Susan Wilmington worrying about her grandmother. She went to her and put her arm around her. “You came with your grandmother?”

Susan, eyes bright with tears, nodded. “I don’t know for sure that it is my grandmother, but she hasn’t come out. Dr. Mann won’t tell me anything.”

Victoria handed her a saved paper napkin she’d taken from her pocket and Susan wiped her eyes.

“I don’t believe there’s anything he can tell you just yet.”

The EMTs wheeled the stretcher out of the cubicle as they worked on the patient.

Casey, at the rear, looked up briefly and nodded at Victoria. “I’ll call you later, okay?”

The stretcher was whisked down the steps and into the ambulance.

Victoria went over to Dr. Mann, who was still standing by the small room. “Is it Mrs. Wilmington?”

Startled, he swiveled. “What?”

“Susan Wilmington came here with her grandmother. Is it Mildred Wilmington? If so, you need to tell Susan. Or I’ll tell her.”

He wiped his forehead. “Mrs. Wilmington. Yes.”

Victoria returned to Susan. “It is your grandmother. You’ll want to drive to the hospital to be with her.”

Victoria returned to Dr. Demetrios’s room to collect her cloth bag containing her wallet, poetry book, notebook, and police hat.

Dr. Demetrios, standing at the door of her cubicle, moved aside to let Victoria pass. “I knew it,” she said. “Dr. Mann should never have hired that woman.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Cynthia Riggs.

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Cynthia Riggs is the author of twelve books in the Martha's Vineyard mystery series featuring 92-year-old poet, Victoria Trumbull, a guidebook calledVictoria Trumbull's Martha's Vineyard, and the first book of a new series set in Washington, DC. She was born on Martha's Vineyard and is the eighth generation to live in her family homestead, which she runs as a bed and breakfast catering to poets, writers, and other creative people. She lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.

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