AN UNHEALTHY PRACTICE


By Nancy Sweetland



"Thanks for driving tonight, Beth. Come on in, won't you?" Abby had her hand on the door handle. "You never stay after we've been out together, and we haven't had a good girl-to-girl talk for a long time."

"I don't think so, not tonight," said Beth, shaking her head. "It's late. And look, your lights are still on. Patrick's probably waiting up for you to tell him all about the opera."

Abby made a disparaging sound. "Patrick? Care about the opera? Beth, you know he never asks me anything about where I've been or what I've been doing." She put her hand on Beth's arm. "Turn off the car and come in. I've got a bottle of Merlot chilling and we can kick back. Get out of these miserable high heels. I insist."

Beth made a face. "Tomorrow comes early. But...okay. One glass, only."

"Good!" Abby sighed with relief, led the way through the front door. They hung their coats on hooks in the hall, kicked off their shoes and turned left toward the kitchen. Beth broke away. "I'll just pop back to Patrick's studio and say hello while you're getting the wine," she said, her voice diminishing as she walked toward the back of the house. "See what he's been working on so late."

Abby smiled. "You do that."

Perfect, so far. She opened the refrigerator and reached for the wine she didn't expect to have to open. Everything was going according to plan. She hesitated, anticipating.

A second later, she heard Beth's frightened yell, "Abby! Come quick! Something's happened to Patrick!"

Abby slammed the refrigerator door and hurried down the hall to Patrick's studio. She knew what she expected to see, and it was even better than she'd hoped.

Patrick was sprawled on the Oriental rug, his handsome face contorted. His chair was overturned as though he'd pushed back from the board with a rush. The watercolor he'd been working on lay crumpled by his hand, as if he'd grabbed it up without realizing before he fell.

Beth knelt beside him, feeling for a pulse in his neck. She looked up, her eyes wide. "Don't just stand there, Abby, call nine-one-one! I can't get a pulse! He isn't breathing!"

As Abby rushed to the phone beside Patrick's drawing board to punch the speed-dial button, she managed to bump the board to upset the water container Patrick used to wash his brushes. Ignoring the mess momentarily, she gave the operator her address. Then, muttering what a fool she was, she grabbed Patrick's paint rag to sop up the muddied water that flowed toward the edge of the board. She threw the sodden rag into the corner sink behind the drawing board. Then she dropped to her knees beside Beth. "Can you do CPR? I never learned how." Abby wrung her hands. "I don't know what to do!"

"Oh, God, I can try," said Beth, attempting to control the tremors in her hands. Her chin quivered. "But I've never done it on a real person, just the dummy in the class I took."

Abby watched Beth tip Patrick's head back to clear his airway, then closed his nose with one hand and began to breathe into his mouth. "Oh, Beth, I'm so glad you're here," she said.

After a moment Beth sat back, frowning. "It's as though there's something stopping the air, Abby." She tried again. "Maybe he choked on something. Help me roll him over."

Beth thumped Patrick's back to dislodge anything that might be caught in his throat, but nothing came out. They rolled him over and Beth tried CPR again.

Abby watched, wringing her hands. "If only there was something I could do!" she wailed. "Where is that rescue squad?" She ran to the window, then back to Beth and Patrick. "Try again, Beth, please!" she urged. Minutes dragged until the paramedics' lights flashed in through the windows. Abby ran to open the door. "Back here," she motioned them in. "Hurry!"

The verdict was quick. "I'm sorry." The paramedic sank back on his heels. "He's gone. When did this happen?"

"We don't know," whimpered Abby. "We were at the opera. Beth found him like this when we came home. Oh, God! Patrick!" She covered her face.

Beth held her while she sobbed.

* * *

"It appears to be an attack of some kind," the medic told Detective Morton as he wrapped up his medical kit. "The autopsy will tell us more."

"Autopsy!" Beth said. "Is that necessary?"

"Always, Ma'am," said Morton, "unless the death is obviously natural. When did you last see him alive?"

"Do we have to do this here?" Abby said in a small voice, flicking her gaze toward Patrick's body.

"Sorry, Ma'am. Let's go into the next room."

He led them into the living room where Abby sank limply onto the couch beside Beth.

"We saw him just before we left for the opera," said Beth, patting Abby's hand. "When I picked Abby up he was watching the six-o'clock news."

"How did he seem?"

Abby dabbed her eyes with a sodden Kleenex. "Just normal. Wasn't he, Beth?"

Beth nodded. "Same as always."

Morton slipped his notebook into his pocket. "That's enough for now. Try to get some rest." He followed the black body bag out the door.

Abby gave a sigh of relief, and started to get up from the couch when the door opened and Morton stepped back in. "That room may be a crime scene, Ma'am. Stay out of it."

"Crime scene! You can't be serious," Beth said.

"Oh, I'm serious," he replied.

"But there's a mess from the water I spilled," said Abby. "I need to get it off the rug before it's ruined."

Morton hesitated. "All right. But touch nothing else."

"No, Sir," Abby said.

* * *

Hours later, after Abby had convinced Beth to go home, that she would be all right, really wanted to be alone, after she had carefully washed the paint rag and cleaned Patrick's water container thoroughly in degreasing detergent and set it where it had been earlier, after she had found and burned the watercolor brush Patrick had flung into the corner behind the desk during his throes of anguish, and after she had moved his antidote kit into the trunk of her car to get rid of later, Abby finally poured herself that glass of Merlot.

Humming, she filled the whirlpool tub, sank into the bubbles and toasted her reflection in the mirrored wall. She'd been so clever to soak Patrick's favorite brush in walnut oil that afternoon, knowing he was deathly allergic to walnuts. Knowing he would shape the bristles in his mouth after dipping it in water. Knowing his antidote kit was no longer in its usual place in his desk drawer. "Here's to Patrick, bless his soul," she said, raising her glass. "And all the money I'll ever need."

* * *

"It appears," said Detective Morton later that week, "that your husband died of anaphylactic shock."

"Oh!" Abby's blue eyes widened as she set down the cup of tea she'd been holding. "What does that mean?"

"That he was allergic to something and it killed him. You're his wife. Do you know of any allergies he had?"

Abby shook her head. "If he did, he kept them from me." She choked back a sob. "We've only been married a few months, Detective. Hardly long enough to know everything about each other."

"Seems like that would be one thing he'd want you to know. So you could help him if anything happened."

Abby nodded. "That makes sense. But what good was I when he needed help and I wasn't there? Oh, if only I hadn't gone to the opera that night." She pulled a tissue out of a box on the end table and dabbed her eyes.

"Didn't he have one of those kits with a hypodermic needle filled with antidote?"

Abby shook her head and met his gaze with hers. "I never saw one."

Morton looked at her for a long moment. "I understand," he said, "that there's a half-million dollar insurance policy on his life. Payable to you."

"There is?" Abby's eyes grew even wider than before. "I — I don't know what to say to that."

"We're going to go over his studio again, Ma'am. With your permission, of course."

"Of course, Detective. Whatever you have to do." Abby stood up. "I just want this to be over."

"I'm sure you do," said Detective Morton. "And so do I. But something's wrong here, and I'm going to find out what it is."

Later that week, Abby opened the door to Detective Morton and a uniformed officer. "You're under arrest for the murder of Patrick Holt," Morton said as he stepped inside. "Read her her rights, Sergeant."

As the officer intoned, "You have the right to remain silent..." Abby frowned. What had she done wrong?

"You look surprised," said Detective Morton.

Abby shook her head. "I planned it so carefully."

Morton nodded. "Yes. You were very clever. You spilled the water so you'd have to clean it up. But because there were no prints on the container but yours, we knew you must have had a reason to clean it. You washed out the rag you sopped the water up with, but you forgot about the watercolor pad on the drawing board that was soaked along the edge." He guided her down the front steps as he spoke. "We found traces of walnut oil in the paper. It was simple to track down the pharmacist who told us your husband was allergic to walnuts." He stopped walking for a moment. "You dipped his brush in walnut oil, knowing he'd put it into his mouth, didn't you? You thought no one would discover what happened." He smiled. "But there was one thing you couldn't know."

"What was that?" She asked, as they marshaled her down the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind her back.

"My wife's a watercolorist, too," said Morton. "It's her hobby. Like your dead husband, she puts her brushes in her mouth to shape them to a fine point. I've told her and told her that wasn't healthy." He laid his hand on Abby's blond hair. "Watch your head," he said as he pushed her into the squad car.


Nancy Sweetland has been writing since the age of 13 when she received her first rejection slip and determined to become a published writer. She is the author of seven picture books, a chapter book mystery for young readers, over 80 short stories for juveniles and adults and an adult romance, "The Door to Love." She lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin.


Copyright 2011 Nancy Sweetland. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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