Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 6

By Robert Plunket April 1, 2009

In last month’s installment, the police turn their scrutiny to Mr. Spryke, who seems to be the only connection between the murders of old Mr. Kneff and Magda Barlow. Then he attends the Asolo gala with elderly widow Doris Dickens; but just as he is considering wooing her for her wealth, a handsome young man named Marco Massima captures her attention. As he and Doris leave the party, there is a stunning development: Emcee Cliff Roles is arrested and charged with the murders.



Mary Alice

was delighted to be invited out to lunch the next day by Mr. Spryke. Rick tagged along, but even that was OK. There was so much to discuss.


Cliff Roles behind bars for murder! Two murders. And one of them had taken place right next door to her office. That fact alone made her a featured player, albeit a minor one, in the biggest local celebrity scandal Sarasota had seen in years. There had been some doozies lately, but nothing, everyone agreed, even as remotely exciting as this Cliff Roles mess.


Roles was the debonair Englishman with the klieg-light smile who emceed every charity event worth going to and many that weren’t. His afternoon radio show featured all the people who made Sarasota tick, and he wrote magazine columns and blogs and had Web sites—even a burgeoning career in better-quality community theater. His background was a little mysterious (he had done something in the music business with Bono—or maybe it was Sonny Bono), but then, the background of most people in Sarasota was a little mysterious.


“Imagine,” Mary Alice said as they settled in at their table at Epicure. “Cliff Roles killing people for their Lladro. I must say, I did not see that coming.”


“It’s a British thing,” explained Mr. Spryke. “They revere property above all else.”


“Even collectibles?”


“Especially collectibles,” said Mr. Spryke. “Look at the Elgin Marbles.”


“Marbles?” said Rick, brightening. Anything to bolster Cliff Roles’ guilt was fine with Rick. If people in England killed each for their marbles, so much the better.


“Not that kind of marbles,” said Mary Alice, with a condescending smile.


“Then what kind?”


Really, Mary Alice thought. Rick can be exasperating. But she wasn’t quite sure what the Elgin Marbles were, either, so she just intensified her smile.


“I wonder if his wife knew,” said Mr. Spryke, trying to change the subject.


“I met her at the Tom Jones concert,” said Mary Alice. “She’s a lovely person. Not British at all. I’m sure she had nothing to do with it.”


“Yeah,” said Rick. “But did she know? I mean, the guy’s bringing home Lladro right and left.”


“Yah-dro,” corrected Mr. Spryke.


“I bet she knew something,” Rick went on. “Wives are not idiots.”


Mary Alice opened her mouth to defend Mrs. Roles, but something in Rick’s observation stopped her. For a moment she spaced out, starring straight ahead. Where had Dr. Wiggins been on Thursday night? He didn’t get home until eight. He said he had a chamber meeting. But was that single-malt Scotch on his breath?


Wives are not idiots.


The people at the table next to them rose to leave. They were in a flurry of excitement, heading off to the bail hearing.


“Like that’s going to happen,” said Rick.


Indeed, it did seem unlikely. There was just too much evidence. It seemed that Magda Barlow had been poisoned. Xochityl, a synthetic cyanide, had been found in her cosmopolitan cocktail. And right next to it, another cosmopolitan, this one without Xochityl but with saliva that DNA tests proved belonged to Cliff Roles. And as for old Mr. Kneff, the murder weapon—the missing andiron—had been found in Cliff’s garage, under a large folder marked “Press Clippings, June ’04.”


His alibis were very shaky. For the first murder, he didn’t even have one. And on the afternoon of the second, he’d been at a rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Jeff Kin, the play’s director, was pretty sure Cliff had stayed until six. But one of the actresses was pretty sure he’d left at three.


“But who turned him in?” Rick asked. That was the question. An anonymous tip had been phoned into the police by a woman. Whoever she was, the police were begging her to come forward.


“Tiramisu for all,” said Mr. Spryke, and as they awaited dessert Mary Alice’s attention was drawn to a couple in the corner. The man was about Dr. Wiggins’ age, but the woman was much younger. They were dressed in business attire. But what was going on was not business. Maybe monkey business. Mary Alice could see underneath the table. The man’s hand was on the young woman’s thigh.


The phrase “wives are not idiots” sprang to her mind once more, but she dismissed it. They were having a lovely lunch. She turned her attention back to Mr. Spryke, and they oohed and aahed as the tiramisu arrived. Not Rick, of course. He had never heard of tiramisu. 






Mr. Spryke was having just the tiniest bit of trouble sleeping. He would wake up in the middle of the night, and after a trip to the bathroom—following a path well lit by night-lights—he would lie in bed and try to put the pieces together. On one hand it seemed so cut-and-dried. The evidence was there and pretty irrefutable. DNA, for heaven’s sake.


But still…it didn’t quite add up.


Who was this mysterious woman who turned Cliff in? An accomplice who was double-crossing him? A vindictive ex-girlfriend from his Bono days? Or just some woman he drunkenly blabbered to at a charity event?


And then there was that look on Cliff’s face as he was being pushed into the police car. Mr. Spryke had seen the whole thing. Cliff didn’t look guilty. He looked mad. And in that fleeting second when their eyes met, when Cliff’s pale face disappeared and the door was slammed—was that a plea for help?


Sometimes Mr. Spryke didn’t get back to sleep until dawn. But when the shadows finally cleared and the wonderful tropical sun beat down and the wild parrots flocked outside his verandah, then he had a whole other perspective. Why worry about it? The murderer had been caught, and he and Rick were off the hook. Some good luck had finally come his way, and he was on a roll.


So during the daylight hours he focused his attention on the other unresolved situation in his life—Doris Dickens.


He thought about her as he strolled the aisles at Morton’s Market. Gourmet foods delighted him, and he found their presence calming. He could stare at the quality cuts of meat, the perfectly filleted salmon, the little coconut cakes and the chocolate truffles, and really get some thinking done.


Was he going to let some two-bit gigolo screw up his plans? Maybe he didn’t want Doris and her millions for himself, but he certainly wasn’t going to let some lowlife get his hands on them. Who was this Marco Massima, anyway?


He and Mary Alice had Googled him. He wasn’t there. There was some initial confusion because it turned out there was a Marco Massimo, with an “o.” But that Marco was a gay porn star. The thought that it could be the same person was almost too good to be true, but when they found a picture of the porn star, he looked nothing like their Marco, although the picture did cause Mary Alice to jump up from the computer and start screaming.


But if he wasn’t a porn star, he was still totally inappropriate. There was something sexual about him, a certain tease of the erotic, a promise of pleasures of the flesh that made any sort of relationship between the 80-year-old Doris and the 30-year-old Marco something you didn’t want to contemplate in any detail. That was one of the best things about Mr. Spryke when it came to escorting an older woman. He had absolutely no tease of the erotic. The pleasures he offered were those of good company and refined artistic tastes, which was just the way it should be with elderly ladies.


It was while staring at a pickled herring that Mr. Spryke had a wonderful idea. What does a gigolo do? Leech. So what would he do? Exactly the opposite. He would pay for something for a change. Instead of letting Doris pick up the tickets and the check and the tips, he would do it himself. He would be the man.


He hurried home and began thumbing through his well-worn copy of the Sarasota Magazine Charity Register. There were all sorts of parties coming up, but the fanciest and most elaborate seemed to be a gala performance at the Sarasota Opera, followed by a dinner-dance in a tent out back. Maestro DeRenzi was being honored, and as a special added attraction, the maestro’s wife, Stephanie, was going to perform a medley of famous arias and relate stories of their life together. Mayor Lou Ann Palmer would also appear and was promising to stand on her head while issuing a proclamation, a stunt that always earned the former circus performer a standing ovation.


Tickets were $250. This gave Mr. Spryke some pause, and for a several hours he debated what to do. To do it right—limo, flowers, a small gift of some sort—could easily cost him upwards of a thousand dollars. Was it worth it?


He called the box office. Maybe they were sold out. It turned out they were. But wait! They’d just had a cancellation. One of the board members had been indicted, and his seats had just become available. They were fourth-row center and priced a little extra— double, in fact. Did Mr. Spryke want them?


After several anxious seconds, he took a deep breath and said yes. Then he gave them his credit card number. His hands were shaking as he hung up the phone. So this was what it was like to be the man.


After he recovered his composure, he called Doris.


“Hello, there,” he said. “How is the charming Mrs. Dickens today?”


“Who is this?”


“It’s me, Timothy Spryke.”


“Timmy! I thought you were selling something.”


He tried to laugh. “Oh, no. Just thinking of you and wondering how you were.”


“I’ve been having so much fun.”


“Really?” said Mr. Spryke. “Doing what?”


“Oh, all sorts of things. Last night we went to the ballet, me and Marco. You remember Marco?”


“Of course.”


“And tonight we’ve got the UCP party.”


“How nice.”


“And then Saturday we got that opera shindig.”


Mr. Spryke’s blood ran cold. How could things have progressed this far, this fast?


“You’re going with Marco?”


“Yes. They gave him free tickets. Isn’t that nice?”




“He’s such a smart young man. He’s going to open an art gallery. Right here in Sarasota. On Palm Avenue. A real fancy one. With painting and sculpture and everything. Strictly high-class for the Longboat Key crowd.”


Mr. Spryke floundered around, grasping at straws. “That sort of thing can be very expensive,” he said.


“Oh, don’t worry about that. He’s got an investor. Me!”


Mr. Spryke was speechless. Some man he’d turned out to be. He had been totally outmaneuvered, completely outflanked. His little battle plan was pathetic. Not since Napoleon at Waterloo had there been such a rout.


“But . . .but,” he said, searching for the right words. “Have you . . . checked him out?”


“I know people,” declared Doris. “He’s strictly on the level.”


“But what do you know about him? Do you know where he’s from? Does he have references?”


“References?” she laughed. “Hey, Marco. It’s my friend the decorator. He wants to know if you have references.” She laughed again, and Mr. Spryke thought he heard somebody else laughing in the background. He waited until the merriment died down. Then he gracefully terminated the conversation.


He sat there for a moment by the phone. He had been outsmarted, pure and simple. He was way out of his league. He sighed and shook his head sadly. Then he went into the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea. 




Out in Lakewood Ranch, Mary Alice sat on the couch in her family room, channel surfing as the afternoon shadows lengthened into twilight.


Family room. How ironic. When was the last time the Wigginses had been together as a family? Jason was a senior in Tallahassee, and Jessica a sophomore in Gainesville. They had no time for Sarasota now. Their lives were parties and classes and football games.


All she had left were their pictures. She looked at the framed photographs on the bookshelf. All the family vacations: Disney World, the Rockies, Puerto Vallarta, when poor little Jason had gotten so sick and had to be airlifted to San Antonio. They’d almost lost him. And Jessica, so adorable in her pink tutu at her Julie Rohr recital back in fifth grade. How beautifully she’d danced. Yes, they’d always be her babies. Even though Jason had recently been arrested for DUI and Jessica had called her a whore.


With an unhappy sigh, she turned off the TV. The big old house, once her pride and joy, seemed so lonely. She was going through a rough patch. Her babies didn’t need her. Her husband didn’t need her. And there was nothing good on TV.


She got up and moved through the living room, turning on all the lights. Anything to liven the place up. She looked at her watch. It was six o’clock. When would Dr. Wiggins be home tonight?


She hated it since he’d joined that Dental Task Force at the Chamber. Meetings until eight or even nine, dinners he had to attend, that all-day meeting in Arcadia, the convention in Naples. It was taking up way too much of his time. She missed the old days, cooking dinner, talking about their respective days, a game of Scrabble, then watching Jay Leno in their big king-sized bed.


Thank God she had Mr. Spryke. Her job was keeping her sane. True, there wasn’t a lot to do at the moment, but they were still hoping for some work from that awful Doris Dickens. Of course Mr. Spryke had to pay a lot of attention to the old biddy, but Mary Alice understood. It was business. In the meantime, until he got a firm commitment from her, there were some small jobs pending—someone in 1350 Main needed window treatments, and a grease fire in a Japanese restaurant was providing them with some re-upholstery work. These days every little bit helped.


Hoping to shake the blues with a little housework, Mary Alice climbed the stairs and began sorting the laundry. If she did it real slow she could kill enough time until the Rachel Maddow Show came on. She really liked her Rachel. Secretly she rather wished Jessica had turned out more like Rachel—a feisty girl who took no guff—instead of what she feared her daughter was becoming—a spoiled sorority girl without the slightest glimmer of ambition. Girls could reach such heights these days. They could have their own show. They could interview famous people. They could be admired, the center of attention. Not like when she was in college. And her daughter just didn’t get it. With her it was all about the next party, the next date, the next trip to Cancun.


She put the whites in one basket and the colors in another and then, as she loaded the whites into the machine, she noticed a strange thing. There, on a pair of her husband’s boxer shorts, was a strange mark. She frowned and moved it up to the light. What was it? Paint? A stain? No, it was lipstick. How on earth could lipstick have gotten on her husband’s boxer shorts? With a sickening feeling in her stomach, she finally realized how. She sank to the floor of her laundry room, and her sad whimper barely made a dent in the emptiness of the home she loved so much.






Across town and feeling almost as glum as Mary Alice, Mr. Spryke heated up a can of soup. He’d been counting on getting some work out of Doris Dickens. Maybe his pipe dreams of marriage to the millionairess were a little grandiose. But replacing her carpeting? Getting her new drapes? Was that too much to ask?


His thoughts drifted back to Hurlbutt, Wisconsin. He remembered those long winter evenings, his mother already packed off to sleep, her baby monitor on, and him sitting in the den, reading a mystery story or leafing through a decorating magazine with Maria Callas singing softly in the background. He’d had such big dreams then, retirement dreams.


And now retirement was here. Some dream. Campbell’s soup for dinner and a stack of unpaid bills.


The phone rang. He glared at it. What now? What new disaster? What new disappointment?




“Mr. Spryke, please,” said a woman’s voice.


“This is he.”


“Hello. This is Tabitha King.”


Tabitha King. That name sounded vaguely familiar.


“My husband and I live down on Casey Key.”


My God, thought Mr. Spryke. It was Stephen King’s wife.


“Anyway,” she went on, “we’re thinking of redecorating. We have a rather big place down here, about 8,000 square feet, and we’ve decided we want a whole new look. Something warm and cozy and inviting. And we think you may just be the right person.”


“Well,” stammered Mr. Spryke. “That’s very flattering.”


“Now we realize you’re probably very busy, but time is of the essence. We want to get started immediately, before we head up back to Maine.”


“Well, actually, I do have a little time right now.”


“Wonderful. Do you think you drive down and talk to us? Tonight?”




“Yes, you see, my husband writes all day, and the evenings are the only time he can concentrate on other things.”


“Well, gee, I guess so.”


Ten minutes later Mr. Spryke was in his car and headed south on the Trail. I must not get my hopes up, he kept repeating to himself. This could fall through so easily. So many other things have. I must not get my hopes up.


But on the other hand . . . Stephen King!


Tabitha King had given him very explicit directions, which he had written down with a trembling hand, and after he crossed the tiny one-lane bridge onto the key, he pulled over and consulted them. There was no one around. Casey Key was dark and quiet, a narrow sliver of sand with walled mansions belonging to the wealthy and reclusive. It was just the tiniest bit spooky and perfectly befitting the master of horror.


“Turn right on Casey Key Drive and head north,” the directions began. So far, so good. “No Turn Around” and “Dead End,” the signs warned. The road was narrow, and the sea grapes seemed to reach out toward him, just like those illustrations in the Grimm Fairy Tales book that had frightened him so much as a child. “Drive exactly 1.2 miles,” the next direction said. He checked his odometer.


A man appeared from nowhere in the middle of the road. He was walking a dog. For a second the headlights caught his face, and he glared at Mr. Spryke. They didn’t seem to like strangers around here.


At 1.2 miles he was supposed to look for a black mailbox, and sure enough, there it was. Feeling heartened, Mr. Spryke made the turn, drove 50 yards past some dark, towering hedges, then checked the next direction. “Right at the brick gate.” He made the turn and found himself on a sharp decline. What’s this, he wondered. Tabitha hadn’t mentioned a decline. He crept forward, feeling something wasn’t quite right. Then he saw it, right ahead of him—water. He was driving down a boat ramp!


He jammed on the brakes, but it was too late. The car skidded forward on the loose gravel, and the water was suddenly upon him. He could feel the current grab the car. “Help!” he screamed, as the car lost its footing and floated out into the bay. The water rushed over the hood and up to the windows. He felt it swirl around his ankles, then his knees. He struggled with the door handle, but the pressure of the water was too great. He tried to open the window. In his panic he couldn’t find the button. “Help! Help!” he screamed as the water filled the car, and then he saw his mother and everything turned to black.



You can read the next installment of “Decorating Can Be Murder” in our May issue. To read all the past issues, go to


Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of two novels, My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie. He’s also a frequent contributor to national publications, including Barron’s, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times.


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