MALICE DOMESTIC 10
Tenth Agatha Award cozy mystery anthology
(Read or print)
Portland, Oregon, seems like an odd choice for someone looking for a place to die, but that is what I believe Miss Spencer chose to do. I first heard about her in a letter from my Aunt Hermione.
Our neighbor Professor Poindexter has finally gone off to the Amazon on that expedition in search of giant spiders he has been planning for so long. I pray he does not bring any live specimens back with him! Mrs. Poindexter will accompany him. She is such a devoted wife. What a shame that her husband's specialty shouldn't be something more pleasant. Butterflies, for instance. In any case, they have rented their house, furnished, to a lady from back East.
Mrs. Poindexter introduced her to me before she left. Miss Spencer is living alone with a maid she brought with her and has hired a woman to do the cooking. She told me she had come here to be near her only living relative, a nephew who I take it is trying to set up some sort of business here about which she seemed rather vague.
She appears to have spent a great deal of time in Europe, where a lot of her relatives tragically died all at once in an avalanche. They were from Boston and had something to do with railroads. Miss Spencer has brought with her only the things she loves most: a magnificent collection of Italian pictures, and a few books and things. Iris, I do believe she is not well. She is very thin and tires easily. Still, there is a strange serenity about her, rather like one of the sadder but resigned Madonnas among her wonderful paintings. She is about thirty-five or so, and handsome in a haggard sort of way, with pale skin and a cloud of soft, light brown hair.
There is, I feel, some sad story in her life -- apart from the fact that she may be suffering from some serious illness. I have been perhaps friendlier than I usually would be with a new neighbor because she seems lonely. I will be very interested in your impression of her.
I smiled when I read the letter. Aunt Hermione had managed, with her usual efficiency, to find out a great deal about Miss Spencer. When I came home for my summer vacation from Stanford, my aunt and I paid a call on her. While there was indeed a brave sort of languor about Miss Spencer, she became very animated when I asked about her pictures. I particularly admired a small, square portrait of a young Venetian woman of the Renaissance period with wavy pale gold hair and a pearl necklace.
"It is one of my favorites," she said, touching the ornate gilt frame. "Not a Titian, but almost certainly from his scuola." She looked at me thoughtfully and said, "She has that Titian red hair, just like you, Miss Cooper, and she is probably about your age." I blushed and said I hoped I hadn't admired the picture just because of that, and she laughed quite merrily. It was a nice throaty laugh, and suddenly she seemed much younger and more vigorous, and I realized that she must have once been quite lively. How sad that her poor health had robbed her of her true nature.
As we were sitting down to tea, the maid, a trim French woman, came in and said that Mr. Spencer had arrived.
"My nephew," she said to us. "Always dropping in unexpectedly. My late brother's boy, Sidney. I'm really just getting to know him. He ran away from his prep school and ended up out West somehow." She smiled indulgently. "He's rather high-spirited, as I was when young." One of her brows arched, giving her a suddenly jaunty air. "My family didn't want me to run off to France during the Great War to become a Red Cross nurse either."
I was glad that she had something of the same temperament of her only living relative. So many people have a slew of relatives and nothing in common with any of them.
A young man with brilliantined hair came into the room. He was dressed for the links in plus fours and a scarlet and yellow argyle sweater with matching socks. "Hiya, Aunt Edna!" he said heartily. After brief introductions, he refused to join us for tea. "No, I'm in a hurry. I just stopped by to see how you are and to let you know I'm having a fella come over and appraise these paintings. For the insurance, you know. I know how crazy you are about 'em, and if anything happened to 'em I know you'd be heartbroken." He grinned happily at the walls and gave her a wink. I had the impression he had been drinking.
Miss Spencer sat up a little straighter. "These pictures mean a great deal to me," she said, "but I don't see what having them appraised for their monetary value has to do with my feelings about them."
"Of course not, of course not," said Sidney hastily. "I just wanted to make sure your affairs were all in good order." There was a little silence, and he added nervously, "I'm only thinking of you. Well, never mind, then. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"I don't think so, Sidney," said Miss Spencer with a narrow-eyed, thin-lipped look.
"Say, listen," he went on breezily, "you wouldn't happen to have a little moolah on you, would you? I seem to have left my wallet at home, and I'll need something to tip the caddy with. I'll square it away with you next time I seeyou."
"How careless of you, Sidney," she said with a forced little laugh. "Please excuse me, ladies."
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