Poison Ivy by Cynthia Riggs is the 11th cozy in the Martha's Vineyard Mystery Series starring Victoria Trumbull who discovers a pair of dead bodies during her first day as an adjunct professor (available March 31, 2015).
On her first day as adjunct professor at Ivy Green College, Victoria Trumbull recognizes the stench emanating from her classroom as more than just dead mice. Brownie, the groundskeeper's mangy mutt, soon discovers a second body hiding beneath a cluster of poison ivy.
The stakes have never been higher for Ivy Green, which is on the brink of losing already-lukewarm support from its accredited partner, Cape Cod University. Thackery Wilson, the founder of Ivy Green, worries that the bad publicity from the murders will obliterate the financial and academic support the tiny college and its dependent students desperately need. As the bodies continue to pile up, all tenure committee members, Victoria and Brownie find themselves hunting a serial killer and trying to save the college.
The season was still too new to be considered fall, but the sky was that brilliant autumnal blue, the air was crisp and smelled of the salt sea, and this was a fine day for Victoria Trumbull. At ninety-two, she was about to launch a new career as adjunct professor. She had been invited to teach a course in poetry at Ivy Green College.
Adjunct professor, she thought, smoothing her hair. A fine title, a peaceful occupation, and she intended to show her colleagues and students that experience mattered.
She had dressed carefully in her green plaid suit and soft white blouse with its self-bow at the neck, had clipped on the earrings that matched the suit, and had even dabbed on a touch of lipstick.
She stowed the papers she’d worked on for the past several weeks—a syllabus, a reading list, lecture notes, and her own and others’ poetry—in her cloth bag along with the baseball hat she always carried.
Gold stitching across the front of the hat read WEST TISBURY POLICE, DEPUTY. Victoria had earned the hat and the title.
Elizabeth, Victoria’s granddaughter, drove her to the campus of Ivy Green College, a few blocks from the Vineyard Haven library. The college consisted of three buildings: two former houses and between them, a two-car garage. One house served as the administration building, the second as the classroom building, and the garage had been enlarged into a lecture hall.
The founder of the college greeted her. “Delighted to have you on our faculty, Mrs. Trumbull.”
“Thank you, Thackery,” said Victoria, shaking his extended hand.
Thackery Wilson was in his early sixties now, his eyes almost hidden by thick lenses in a heavy tortoiseshell frame. He was tall and lean, just as he’d been as a fourteen-year-old. Victoria could remember when he’d played summer softball in the field behind the Grange Hall. Over the years he’d assumed an air of dignity overlain with superiority that didn’t entirely suit him. Nevertheless, she’d always admired Thackery. And the fact that he was bringing higher education to the Island was certainly in his favor.
“We’ll have an orientation for new faculty members this morning, Mrs. Trumbull. Classes begin after lunch. I see you’re all ready.” A nod to her bulging cloth bag.
He looked off to his left and scowled. A pear-shaped man, also in his sixties, was rolling, rather than walking, toward them. He was short with narrow shoulders, a round belly, and plump buttocks. He had stringy gray hair, gray face, stained gray cotton trousers, gray work shirt. Even his shoes were gray.
“You know Walter our groundskeeper, of course,” said Thackery.
“Good morning.” Victoria shifted her cloth bag to her left hand and extended her right. “Nice to see you, Walter.”
“You teachin’?” Walter said, jerking his head toward the former garage.
Thackery answered. “Yes. She’ll have a class of eleven in Catbriar Hall in an hour and a half. Have you set up the seats?”
“There’s only one of me,” said Walter, who’d ignored Victoria’s extended hand. “Want me to drop everything?”
“If you would, please.” A muscle in Thackery’s jaw twitched. “I want to show Professor Trumbull her classroom. Is the door unlocked?”
Walter withdrew a long chain with a ring of a dozen keys from some pocket, and with a deep sigh rolled his way toward the new lecture hall.
Thackery said to Victoria, “I’ll provide you with a list of your students, Mrs. Trumbull. You’ll find you know many of them.” He walked slowly, apparently to let Walter get far enough ahead to open the door.
Walter, for his part, had stepped up onto the wide porch and was fumbling with the keys, searching through the jangling key ring, apparently to let Thackery know that he wasn’t about to be told what to do.
That meant that when Walter eventually opened the door, all three of them were treated to the stench that poured out of the building in a nauseating cloud.
Victoria stepped away from the door and waved her hand in front of her great nose.
“Walter,” said Thackery, his face taut. “What have you done now?”
“Obeying orders,” muttered Walter. “Mice. You told me to get rid of them.”
“Surely dead mice can’t smell that horrid,” said Victoria, holding a napkin that she’d hurriedly fished out of her pocket to her nose.
“Drop everything, and clean up this place. Immediately,” said Thackery.
Walter unlatched his ring of keys and the long chain connected to them from his belt and tossed them onto the porch flooring. “I can only do so much. Do this. Do that. Set up chairs. Take them down. Clean up the mice yourself, you want them cleaned up.”
“You can’t quit again,” said Thackery. “Not now.”
“Professor Trumbull has a class to teach.”
Walter set his feet apart and folded his arms over his belly, his mouth in a tight pout.
“We can sit under the trees, if Walter doesn’t mind setting chairs out there,” Victoria said.
“What do you expect from me, Walter? An apology for asking you to do your job?” Thackery stretched himself to his full height, thinning like a rubber band. “You, the janitor? Well, you won’t get it.”
“That’s it,” said Walter, leaving the keys and chain where he’d dropped them. He waddled away toward home, across the street from the college.
“It’s fine, Thackery,” said Victoria, her voice muffled by the napkin. “We can sit on the grass under the trees.” She lowered the napkin. “But Thackery, I know how dead mice smell, and I don’t believe that stench is dead mice. You’d better call the police.”
* * *
They turned away from the odor funneling out of the open door and headed toward the administration building.
“You’ve got to keep people from entering the building until the police get here,” said Victoria.
“Mrs. Trumbull,” said Thackery with studied patience, “this is not a matter for the police. It is a matter for a competent janitor, and since we don’t have one, I shall call Kerry Scott’s cleaning service. We do not need police to clean up dead mice.” He took a steel pocket watch out of his watch pocket and opened it. “Classes start in a little more than an hour.”
“Do you have a cell phone?” Victoria asked.
“Of course not.” Thackery strode toward the building with its discrete black-and-gold sign, WOODBINE HALL. Victoria followed.
“I assure you, the smell is not mice,” she said, slightly out of breath from trying to match his stride. “I need to make that call.”
Without replying, Thackery climbed the steps to the front porch and opened the door. Stained-glass panels, a relic of the building’s past life as someone’s home, framed the door. The late morning light cast blurry purple-and-green images of fruiting grapevines on the entry hall’s scuffed wooden floor.
“Where’s Linda?” asked Victoria, glancing around the room for Thackery’s assistant, Linda Bacon.
“Out sick again,” said Thackery. He made his call to the cleaning service. When he was off the line, Victoria dialed her boss, West Tisbury’s police chief, Mary Kathleen O’Neill.
“Casey,” said Victoria, when the chief answered. “I’m at Ivy Green College and there’s a dead body in the old garage.” Before Casey had time to respond, Victoria went on. “I know this is state police business, but since I’m your deputy, I thought I should tell you first.”
“Have you seen it?”
“I smelled it.”
“Oh Lord!” said Casey. “That means it’s been there a while. I’ll call the state guys and the Tisbury cops and get there as soon as I can.” Before she disconnected, she asked, “You okay?”
“Certainly.” Victoria hung up and turned to Thackery. “I’m sorry Linda is sick. I hope it’s not serious.”
“It’s an advanced case of hypochondria,” said Thackery. “She’ll be in tomorrow morning. Late, naturally, because she’ll be weak having spent two days in bed. Once she smells the dead mice, she’ll leave immediately, feeling faint.”
“Her grandmother was the same way,” said Victoria, sympathetically.
“I’d get rid of her, but no one else would work for what I can pay her. When she is here, she’s an excellent worker.”
The two-person cleaning crew arrived within a few minutes and Thackery led them to the garage, now labeled CATBRIAR HALL.
“Phew-eee, mister,” said the stout Brazilian woman who seemed to be in charge. “You said dead mice? Not dead mice. Big animal. We don’t do dead animals. You want animal control.” The cleaners left, waving the stink away from their nostrils.
Thackery smacked the side of his head with the palm of his hand. His once-thick dark hair curled around his head in a sort of gray tonsure. “We have less than an hour until classes begin.”
“The police are on their way,” said Victoria. They were standing well off to one side of the former garage. “There’s no need to cancel classes. It’s appropriate for poets to meet under the trees. The other classes were to meet in the other house anyway.”
“Honeysuckle Hall,” said Thackery.
Victoria glanced up as a state police car pulled up in the parking area.
“Most embarrassing,” said Thackery.
* * *
“Morning, Mrs. Trumbull,” said Sergeant Smalley. “Morning, Thackery. What do we have here?”
“I hope it’s a false alarm,” said President Thackery Wilson, lifting his nose.
“It’s in the garage,” said Victoria.
“Catbriar Hall,” corrected Thackery.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” said Smalley.
“You’ll be able to smell it,” said Victoria.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have a college to run,” said its president, and left.
Victoria led Smalley and Tim Eldredge, one of the state troopers, to the open door of the lecture hall.
“Hmm,” said Smalley, covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief. “When was the building last used?”
“I don’t know. I would guess late August when Thackery had a forum on symbolism in fiction.”
“Two weeks.” Smalley beckoned to the trooper, who was keeping his distance. “Tim, get Thackery back here. He needs to answer a few questions.”
“I have faculty arriving,” protested the president when Tim returned with him.
“That can wait, Thackery,” said Smalley. “Since the hall was last used in late August, has it been locked?”
“Walter was supposed to keep it locked.”
“Is he your caretaker?”
“Barely.” Thackery folded his arms over his narrow chest, chin up, nose in the air. “If you’re here to clean out the dead mice, I suggest you get busy so we can begin to educate our students.”
“Before we allow anyone to step inside,” said Smalley politely, “I’ll be calling in the forensics team from the mainland. No one’s to enter the building.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” said Thackery, tugging at the curl of hair that had plastered itself to his sweaty forehead.
“I’m so excited, Mrs. Trumbull,” cried Honesty Norton. “I’ve read all your books.” Honesty’s long blond ringlets framed a face dwarfed by enormous brown eyes
The class of eleven, ten young women and one young man, settled down under the large oaks behind the three buildings, away from the activity around the lecture hall. Simon Mayhew, the sole male student, found a green resin lawn chair behind the administration building for Victoria.
“Why are the police here, Mrs. Trumbull?” he asked.
“There’s a problem in the lecture hall,” said Victoria. “Let’s introduce ourselves.”
“Well, I’m Brittany Silva?” said the dark-haired girl to Victoria’s right, ending her sentence in a question. “And I’ve been writing poems since I was, like, eight?” Brittany tossed her long hair behind her shoulders with a shrug. Victoria had difficulty thinking of these young people as men and women. “I brought some of my poems with me.” Brittany’s slender tanned legs were stretched out in front of her and she leaned forward in expectation.
“Wonderful, Brittany,” said Victoria. “We’d like to hear some of your poems in a later session. Next?”
“I’m Jodi Paloni,” the next student said. “What stinks, Mrs. Trumbull?” She, too, was dark-haired, but her hair was cropped close in a buzz cut. The tattoos on her upper arms were circles of vines or snakes, Victoria couldn’t tell for sure. She had gold rings in her eyebrows and a gold stud in her nose. Victoria imagined how it must hurt when she had a cold and had to blow her nose.
“Are you related to the Paloni children on New Lane?” Victoria asked. “Their sister, perhaps?”
“I’m their mother,” said the girl.
Victoria was momentarily stumped. “Sandy is your son?”
“My youngest. What is that smell?”
“That’s why we’re out here instead of in Catbriar Hall,” said Victoria, mulling over the fact that Jodi looked fifteen and her youngest of at least four sons was eight. “They’re cleaning up something.”
“The police?” asked Simon. “Cleaning up something?”
“Yes,” said Victoria. “Simon, tell us why you’re taking this course.”
The two-hour class flew by. Victoria memorized the names and faces and after her students left wrote down the clues that would help her remember them for the next class meeting on Thursday. Rule Britannia for Brittany, with her ruler-straight hair. Her large eyes gave Honesty an honest expression. Simon says for Simon. And so forth.
* * *
Yes, it was a corpse, dead at least two weeks, possibly more, found in the crawl space under the garage. The space had been excavated when the garage was expanded, and was accessible only through a hatch in the closet floor of the new section. A man. It wouldn’t be easy to identify him, especially since he’d carried no identification.
* * *
Toby, the undertaker, removed the corpse after Doc Jeffers, this week’s medical examiner, declared the man officially dead, and the off Island forensics team had vacuumed up every bit of possible evidence.
Kerry Scott’s cleaning service returned with disinfectant, bleach, and scrubbing brushes, and in a short time, Catbriar Hall, the erstwhile garage, was almost habitable again, although there was still a faint unpleasant odor that overlay the cleaning scents.
* * *
The following day, Walter lumbered through the front door of Woodbine Hall, the administration building. President Thackery Wilson was at his desk, poring over a stack of papers.
Linda, his assistant, had called in sick again.
Walter cleared his throat.
Thackery looked up over his glasses. “Is there something I can do for you, Walter?”
“You can apologize, that’s what you can do.”
“Apologize!” sputtered Thackery. “After you walked out on the job leaving a ninety-two-year-old great-grandmother to do your work?” He slapped his pen down on the papers and stood.
Walter drew up a chair and plunked himself down on it. “I want an apology, and I want my job back.”
“I didn’t fire you. You quit.” Thackery took a deep, deep breath, let it out slowly, and sat down again. “Walter, this is the third time you’ve walked off the job over the past year.”
“With reason, every time.” Walter leaned back in the chair and clasped his hands over his belly.
“I can’t have this.”
At this point, Victoria Trumbull came into the office, which looked much like an unfurnished living room. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Not in the least,” said Thackery, standing again.
Walter continued to sit, his chin lowered, his lower lip stuck out so its purplish inner surface showed.
“I was passing by and wanted to leave off yesterday’s attendance record,” said Victoria. “I won’t disturb you.”
“Please, have a seat, Professor Trumbull,” said Thackery. “Walter has come to request his job back.” Once Victoria was seated, Thackery sat.
“All I want is an apology,” said Walter.
Victoria glanced from one angry face to another. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“I had asked Walter to clean up Catbriar Hall, and it turned out to be a larger problem than we expected.”
“A simple apology,” said Walter.
“A long-dead corpse does require specialized attention,” said Victoria. “Not something Walter could be expected to do. I think we can safely apologize.”
“That’s right,” said Walter, nodding.
“Why don’t we agree that Walter deserves an apology for having been expected to do an almost impossible task, and you, Thackery, deserve an apology from Walter, who walked off the job at a critical time.”
“He apologizes first,” said Walter.
“Thackery?” warned Victoria.
“Dammit, I apologize,” said Thackery.
“Then I apologize, too,” said Walter, hoisting himself out of the chair. “I’ll be on the job first thing in the morning, Mrs. Trumbull.” With that, Walter nodded to Victoria, ignored Thackery, and left.
“Jeesus Kee-rist,” said Thackery. “I hoped we’d finally gotten rid of him.”
* * *
On the porch of Alley’s Store in West Tisbury (Dealers in Almost Everything), Sarah Germaine was sitting on the bench with her back to the sign that read CANNED PEAS. As usual, Joe the plumber was leaning against one of the posts that held up the porch roof, his cheek puffed out with a wad of something.
“Hope this weather holds,” said Joe, leaning off to one side to spit a stream of brown juice away from the step.
“Thanks for not smoking,” said Sarah, smiling sweetly. She had stopped, as usual, on her way home from Tribal Headquarters, where she worked. This afternoon she was wearing a turquoise sweatshirt with WAMPANOAG TRIBE OF GAY HEAD (QUINNAH) emblazoned on it in reddish-orange letters that vibrated against the turquoise background.
“You being funny or something?” said Joe, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
Before Sarah could answer, a silver Porsche pulled up against the granite blocks that edged the walkway and a young man in pressed jeans and ironed plaid shirt got out.
Sarah and Joe stopped talking and watched.
The young man locked the car door.
“Locked it!” exclaimed Sarah.
“New Yorker,” said Joe.
The driver walked around the front of the car, strolled across the walkway, and mounted the steps up onto the porch. He nodded to Sarah and Joe, opened the screen door, and stepped inside.
“Well,” said Sarah. “La de dah.”
“Know who that is?” said Joe.
“No idea. Not from around here, that’s for sure.”
“Hollywood,” said Joe.
“He’s in that teevee series, Family Riot. You know.”
“No, I never watch that stuff,” said Sarah.
“Name’s Bruce something. Steinbicker.”
“Well,” said Sarah. “Oh, my.” She tugged the sleeves of her sweatshirt over her knuckles. “Even I’ve heard of him. What’s he doing here?”
“Playground of the rich and famous, dahlin’. Wants to be seen consorting with the natives.”
“You heard what Mrs. Trumbull is up to now, didn’t you?” asked Sarah, changing the subject abruptly.
“Now what’s the old lady doing?”
“She’s teaching, but that’s not what I meant. She found a dead body yesterday at the college.”
“No shit,” said Joe, shifting the wad inconspicuously to his other cheek. “Whose body is it?”
“They can’t tell. Dr. Wilson thought it was dead mice. Mrs. Trumbull called the cops.”
“Smelled that bad?”
“Kerry Scott’s cleaners refused to clean the place.”
The screen door opened again, and the man who looked like Bruce Steinbicker stepped down onto the porch carrying a Wall Street Journal. Sarah turned to stare at him. Joe gazed across the road at his truck, where Taffy, his golden retriever, was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Nice day,” said the stranger, nodding at Sarah. His voice was mellow. His hair, a light brown, was rumpled artistically.
“Ahh…” said Sarah.
The stranger strode across the porch, stepped down onto the walkway, unlocked the driver’s side door of his Porsche, got in, started the engine, made a U-turn in front of Joe’s truck, and drove off.
“Cat got your tongue?” asked Joe.
* * *
After a week, the Island’s excitement over the unidentified dead man faded somewhat. Victoria’s class had already formed an identity of its own. Even these blasé children had been impressed by her knowing and remembering their names, and Victoria felt quite satisfied with herself. They continued to meet under the trees during the early weeks of the Island’s golden September.
Linda, Thackery’s assistant, a skinny woman with a massive tangle of curly light brown hair, had returned to work from her sickbed.
Walter went about setting up chairs, un-setting them, mowing the grass, cleaning the kitchen, and generally grumbling, but grumbling with a degree of caution.
Victoria was packing up her papers at the end of the fifth class session, a Tuesday, when Jodi, the teenage-looking mother of the four Paloni boys, spoke to her.
“You got a minute, Mrs. T?”
“Of course, Jodi. I’m impressed with the work you’ve shown me.”
“Yeah, well.” Jodi glanced down at her bare feet. “I’m working on a project, Mrs. T, and I need your advice.”
“Of course. Poetry?”
“No, ma’am. Island history. Sociology, actually.”
“Sit down and tell me about it.”
She plopped onto the grass, her cutoff shorts barely covering what was necessary. “You know about the hearing impaired community in Chilmark?”
“I remember as a child meeting Chilmarkers who spoke only with sign language.”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Mrs. T.” Jodi was more vivacious than Victoria had seen her in the previous two weeks. “I’m working on my master’s degree…”
“You’re what?” Victoria interrupted. “Your master’s?”
“Yes, ma’am. Dr. Wilson got permission from Cape Cod University for me to work on my MA in sociology under Professor Roberta Chadwick.”
“She lives on the Vineyard, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, ma’am. Oak Bluffs. She teaches at the university and commutes to Woods Hole.”
“As well as teaching here at Ivy Green College?”
“She doesn’t teach here, just at CCU. She’s up for tenure next year. She needs to publish stuff and needs credit for community service.” Jodi pointed a thumb at her chest and smiled. “That’s me.”
“How many Island students does she have?”
“She’s working individually with me and two other grad students, I think. I haven’t met them.”
“Have you decided on a thesis topic?”
“Signing.” Jodi drew her feet up under her. “My grandmother was deaf. She taught me signing. I want to do legal signing, you know, for court cases. Trials, depositions, witness interviews. You know.”
“I didn’t realize there was such a career,” said Victoria. “This is wonderful. How can I help you?”
“I’d like to interview you, Mrs. T, for my thesis on the Chilmark deaf-mutes. What you remember or knew firsthand about the community, any descendants you know of that I could talk to. That sort of stuff.”
“Certainly. A few people are still around who remember them. You’re welcome to come to my house.”
“Thanks. I go past your place all the time.”
“Tomorrow morning would be convenient for me,” said Victoria. “I have some papers and books you may borrow.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I get the kids off to school. Around nine-thirty?”
Copyright © 2015 by Cynthia Riggs.
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Cynthia Riggs is the author of eleven books in the Martha's Vineyard mystery series. 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.