Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 8

By Robert Plunket June 1, 2009

In last month’s installment, while Mr. Spryke was in Sarasota Memorial Hospital, recovering from an attempt on his life that had resulted in his nearly drowning, Cliff Roles broke out of jail, where he was being held on charges of committing two murders. Cliff snuck into Mr. Spryke’s room and declared he knew the name of the real killer, Hailey Harper Howe, and the two left the hospital together. Meanwhile, Mary Alice Wiggins, driven to desperation by her husband’s infidelity, was surprised in the act of taking painkillers by handyman—and also unhappily married—Rick Yoder.


“Cliff! You left your dirty dishes in the sink. Again.”

“Sorry, mate.”

“You’ve got to be more careful. Every cop in town is looking for you, and here you are, leaving stuff strewn hither and yon.”

“I know, I know,” Cliff sighed. “It’s just that I’m under so much stress.”

“You’re under stress? What about me? I’m the one who’s harboring a serial killer.”

“I said all right,” Cliff said and settled back in the living room armchair, sulking.

The truth is they were both frazzled. Mr. Spryke had been out of the hospital less than 48 hours, and his back was still killing him and his two broken fingers were in splints. And now he was responsible for hiding Cliff Roles as the police searched the town for him. They were after Cliff with a vengeance, as his brazen escape had embarrassed them terribly. There he was, one minute graciously emceeing the jail talent show, and the next minute hidden in the van with the sound equipment and on his way to freedom.

The two of them had developed an ad hoc design for living, and while it was unwieldy and onerous, it was accomplishing its purpose. During the day, Cliff lay on a tattered quilt up in the attic crawl space, listening to CDs with a headset and trying not to shift his weight. Downstairs, Mr. Spryke remained in his bed as Mary Alice and Rick spelled each other with the visitation and nursing duties.

But something was always on the verge of going wrong. Mr. Spryke had been doing some Medicare paperwork with Mary Alice when the unmistakable sound of snoring drifted down from above. He immediately feigned a back spasm and sent Mary Alice to Walgreen’s for pain medication, then gave Cliff holy hell, plus a coffee refill.

In the evening, when visitors had departed and the house was all locked up as tight as—and hopefully tighter than—the county jail, Cliff was allowed to come down and relax in the living room, the blinds tightly drawn and the TV on to drown out the sound of conversation.

“I’ll have a light tea,” Cliff would say.

“You’ll have what I give you. And take your feet off the coffee table.”

When they weren’t eating, they talked obsessively about their predicament and the strange woman who seemed hell-bent on destroying them. Mr. Spryke was highly skeptical about this Hailey Harper Howe being the killer. As an actress—she was Cliff’s co-star in The Glass Menagerie—she could easily have imitated Tabitha King, but otherwise it wasn’t falling into place. “Why her?” he kept asking.

“Because she hates me. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s quite mad with hatred.”

“But why?”

“She’s jealous.”

“Of you?”


“Enough to kill?”

“Yes! I’ll never forget opening night. I got all the applause. I was playing the Gentleman Caller. It’s usually a supporting role. But not the way I played it. You should have seen the audience. I came out for my curtain call and they went crazy. The cheers! The shouts of bravo! Well, one shout of bravo.

“Then she came out. Laura the Limper, we called her backstage. You should have seen her limp. She has to limp in the play, you know, but you should have seen this thing. She was dragging that foot like it was a sack of potatoes. The applause level plummeted. It was embarrassing. I felt sorry for her. Then I saw the look in her eye. She was looking right at me. And if looks could kill . . .”

Mr. Spryke digested this. Yes, he had heard Cliff was good in The Glass Menagerie. Jay Handelman from the Herald-Tribune called him “cruelly tender.” Or was it “tenderly cruel, if a trifle old for the part”? But still . . . “People don’t murder other people because of applause,” he said.

“They do at The Players.”

“But then why did she kill old Mr. Kneff? And Magda Barlow?”

Cliff got up and began to pace around. “That part I haven’t figured out yet. But I do know why she’s railroading me. She needs someone she can pin the blame on. So she plants the murder weapon in my garage. She steals a water bottle I’ve been drinking out of. Then she plants the incriminating evidence and bingo—case closed. Murderer caught. And then she moves on to another Florida town, Naples maybe, or Lake Wales, or Hypoluxo—and she starts all over again.”

He stopped and turned to Mr. Spryke. “We’ve got to warn all the community theaters!”

Mr. Spryke felt a headache coming on. “But what about me?” he asked Cliff. “Why did she try and kill me?”

Cliff stared at him. “Maybe you know too much.”

They were both silent a moment. “What do we do now?” asked Mr. Spryke.

Cliff paused for effect. “We stalk her.”

“Stalk her? Are you nuts? How are we going to stalk her? Every cop in town is looking for you. Your picture is everywhere. Don’t you think we’d be noticed?”

A smile came to Cliff’s lips. “Not if we wear disguises.”



“Do raccoons snore?”

“Raccoons? I guess so.”

“Then it’s back. The one in the attic.”

Mary Alice stirred the sugar around in her coffee. The dinner rush at Denny’s was long over, and they had the place to themselves. Over in the corner a waitress filled the salts and peppers, and in the background the strains of Me and Mrs. Jones could barely be made out.

“I’ll take care of it,” Rick said, quietly and confidently. “I’ll get my gun.”

Mary Alice felt a little shiver. Even though she certainly didn’t want the raccoon destroyed, a part of her was thrilled that a man—particularly a man like Rick—was willing to kill something for her.

How had she misjudged him? Why, he was the kindest, gentlest, most honorable man she had ever met.

He took off his glasses and gave her another one of those looks. True, his left eye wandered a bit, but they were such beautiful eyes, both of them.

“So. Who gets the morning shift?” he asked.

They had certainly been busy since Mr. Spryke got home from the hospital. His recovery was amazing; but still, he was an older man who had just been through a terrible trauma. Rick had installed new locks, as he’d requested, and this seemed to reduce his anxiety level. And his appetite was certainly back. Why, he was eating twice as much as he used to.

“I’ll do it,” Mary Alice said.  “I can be there by eight. He’s usually still asleep. I have a spinning class at three, but I’m basically free until then.”

“Unless . . .”

“Unless what?”

“We could do it together.”

She looked down, suddenly embarrassed. There was a silence,  a pleasant silence.


“Does Travis like his new teddy?” she said at last.

“He loves it,” Rick replied. “I told him it was a present from a beautiful princess.”

The princess blushed.

This Rick thing was hitting her like a ton of bricks. His voice, his manner, his broad shoulders. It was all she could think about. How terrible his situation—the financial problems, the brain-damaged son, the awful wife. He deserved so much better. He was so kind and caring. She still cherished how he had handed her his red bandanna right there in the Walgreen’s parking lot when she started blubbering and crying. It was the most humiliating moment of her life. But then—just look what it had led to.

“I think they want us to leave,” Rick said after a while.


“Yes, I guess so.”

But neither one moved.





“Do these shorts make me look fat?”

“Turn around.”

Cliff turned from the mirror and faced Mr. Spryke. He put his hands on his hips. Mr. Spryke looked him over and waited a fatal second too long before replying.

“So. I do look fat. Go ahead. Say it.”

“You don’t look fat.”

“Why didn’t you get me a bigger size?”

“Cliff, let’s get one thing straight. I’m the one who has to do all the work around here. I’m the one who has to go to the Short Stop and get you your corn dogs, and I’m the one who has to go to the Goodwill and spend $100 buying disguises with my own money while you luxuriate in air-conditioned splendor on my couch watching Animal Planet and Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?”

“You’re right,” said Cliff. “We mustn’t squabble. We must work as a team.”

Mr. Spryke had severe misgivings about the team with which he was working, but until he could come up with something better, he felt he had to adhere to Cliff’s stalking plan.

It was still a little nebulous, but at least it had a starting point. They would stake out Hailey Harper Howe’s downtown apartment and follow her every move.

They had driven past it early this morning in Mr. Spryke’s “loaner” from the insurance company. Immediately there was a problem. Hailey Harper Howe’s block was being roped off for a day-long street party to mark the beginning of Sarasota Gay Pride Week. Within hours several hundred gay people and their friends would be milling about, right where they were supposed to be stalking.

“Maybe we should postpone,” Mr. Spryke said.

“We can’t,” said Cliff. “Time is of the essence.”

“But we’ll stand out.”

“Not if . . .” Cliff’s eyes fell on a large banner. “A Warm Sarasota Welcome to the World’s Gay Lesbian Bi-Sexual Transgendered Community.”

He slapped his forehead.

“Not if we’re gay German tourists.”

Actually, Mr. Spryke was quite taken with the disguise he came up with. While Cliff was going very butch, in denim cutoffs and a wife beater, Mr. Spryke had settled on a more fey look—a well-tailored lilac suit with a chiffon scarf at the neck and a wide-brimmed Panama to ward off the sun. True, it was a little Nathan Lane in La Cage aux Folles, but then, as Mr. Spryke ruefully reflected, “So am I.”

The important thing was to get Cliff well-disguised, and on this score they had succeeded admirably. With his trademark shock of white hair shaved off and copious applications of skin bronzer and iodine, he had been magically transformed from a man with the white skin of a Celtic Brit into a specimen more akin to a swarthy Turkish wrestler. To further complete this confusion of genes and nationality, he had come up with a new identity for himself—he was now Florian Schienel, a third-grade teacher from Düsseldorf, here to let his hair down and party, thousands of miles away from the prying eyes of folks back home.

Mr. Spryke watched as Cliff paced about the room in his disguise, mumbling to himself.

“What are you doing?”

“Finding my character,” Cliff replied. “That’s the way we actors work. We search for the character.” He stopped. “From now on I will speak only in German.”

“But I don’t speak German.”

“Wir sind hier, wir sind queer, gewohnt euch dran.”

“What? Cliff—”

“Halt’s maul! Ich heiße Florian.”

They drove downtown. Parking was a terrible problem. A cop made them leave the first place they found. “Outski,” he yelled. “Adios.” Both were terrified when his uniformed presence appeared, but soon he had moved on. Cliff’s disguise was working—the cop barely gave the hunted serial killer a second glance.

They strolled through the festival, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible. It was barely noon, but things were well under way. Gay men and lesbians flocked to the tents and food stands, along with gray-haired parents wearing “I’m Proud of My Gay Son” T-shirts. Some of the more enlightened politicians worked the crowd, wearing big buttons that read “I’m Keith Fitzgerald” or “Meet Larry Eger, Public Defender.” Down at the end of the block on an outdoor stage, a half-forgotten disco group was lip-syncing their only hit, and Susan Stanton, the transgendered city manager from Lake Wales, stood off to the side, waiting to be crowned both King and Queen of the Festival.

Mr. Spryke was getting the uneasy feeling that he had worn the wrong thing. True, Ms. Stanton gave instant credibility to the willowy look, but all the other men seemed to be trying to look as tough as possible. He felt like he was really standing out. People were staring at him. He could feel it.

“Grrrrr,” said an attractive young man passing in the opposite direction, and Mr. Spryke realized it was not him they were staring at but rather Cliff. He had found his character only too well. Mr. Spryke studied him out of the corner of his eye. His chest was all puffed up and his walk had become a strut; a sneer was on his lips and he exuded a potent Teutonic/Turkish masculinity that was turning heads and causing at least one man to walk into a street sign.

“Florian,” he hissed. “Turn it down a notch.”


Mr. Spryke grabbed Cliff’s arm and dragged him over to the Baptist Lesbian Alliance, which was virtually deserted. A woman named Heidi reluctantly let them sit on a pair of folding chairs, and from there they had an unobstructed view of Hailey Harper Howe’s apartment building, an old four-unit structure from the 1920s. For the next hour or so they sat, staring at it, shifting their weight and trying not to let their attention wander. “This is hard,” said Mr. Spryke.

“I’m starving,” Cliff finally said. “Did you bring any money?”

Mr. Spryke dug into the smart European man’s clutch that went so well with his outfit and pulled out a twenty. “Get me something, too.”


“See if you can find a sausage,” he replied, which caused Cliff to burst into a spasm of naughty giggles.

Cliff was only gone two seconds before he came running back, his eyes wide with excitement. “Look, look,” he said, gesturing toward Hailey Harper Howe’s building. A white Mercedes was pulling into the tenant parking space.

Mr. Spryke felt he was experiencing déjà vu. He had seen that car before when he’d been stalking somebody.Who? Where? Of course! In front of old Mr. Kneff’s house, that week so long ago when he had been obsessively spying on his neighbor. And a girl had gotten out—the same girl who was getting out now.

“That’s her,” said Cliff. “That’s Hailey Harper Howe.”

Yes, it was the same girl—if a woman on the wrong side of 30 can be called a girl. Her languid walk, her long, straight hair a goldish brown, the sunglasses set back on her head. That was her, all right. The woman who was trying to kill him.

But why?

Then someone else got out of the car. Marco Massima. The so-called art dealer and young man about town. His rival for the affections of Doris Dickens. Marco looked around disdainfully at the gay people and then grabbed Hailey Harper’s hand. He kissed her roughly on the lips, and they proceeded into the building. It all fell into place, like the drop of a guillotine. They were working together. There wasn’t one murderer, there were two. Two immoral manipulators, new in town and ready to stop at nothing. And he was on their list because he was standing in the way of the biggest score of all—

“We’ve got to warn her,” Mr. Spryke said.


“Doris. She’s next.”




Out in Lakewood Ranch, Mary Alice was putting the final touches on her Brazilian bikini wax. She wasn’t quite used to it and the whole thing had been quite painful, but as she surveyed the results she had to admit—it was a vast improvement. Never had she felt so lovely.

Or so nervous. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she kept whispering to herself.

And there was so much to do. The long, languid patchouli-scented bath had not been as relaxing as she had anticipated, and she had finally jumped in the shower to get all that greasy oil off. She sniffed as she toweled off—now she smelled like one of those things you burn to keep mosquitoes away. Her hair didn’t turn out well the first time, either, so she shampooed it again, and now it was worse. She was terrified she had over-tweezed her eyebrows. They looked awful to her, but that wasn’t the issue. How would they look to him?

Never in her entire life had she done anything like this. And with a Mennonite. He was willing to risk eternal damnation for her, so she’d better be good.

But how could she be? She was such an innocent. The only man she’d ever been with was her husband, and the last time they had made love was

Labor Day weekend. No, make that a year ago Labor Day weekend.

She didn’t want to come on too strong. Not with a Mennonite. There might be things they just didn’t do, and she had to be alert to this possibility. She had to take her cues from him. The most important thing was to appear happy and thrilled and satisfied no matter what he did, no matter how awful it was.

She practiced looks of ecstasy for a while in front of the mirror. One worked best: her head thrown back, her eyelids fluttering, just the whites showing.

The little clock on the vanity caught her eye. Oh, my God, less than an hour to go. They were meeting in the Publix parking lot, then driving out to the Colony in her car. They would arrive in plenty of time for the sunset cocktail that came with the “Sarasota Lovers Romantic Getaway Package.” It was such a bargain these days—just $199, and that included dinner in the Monkey Bar and extra mints. She was willing to pay for the whole thing herself, but quickly realized this would hurt Rick’s masculine ego, so they were going 50-50.

Her cell phone rang. Mr. Spryke again. She was sorry, but she was putting her foot down. Somebody else would have to help him. If she answered his call she knew what it would be. He couldn’t find the remote. He wanted more corn dogs from the Short Stop. Well, let him figure it out. This was her evening, and nothing was going to intrude.

An unhappy thought entered her mind. What if it wasn’t trivial? What if he really needed something?

No. No, no, no. For once she was saying “no.” Let him call that nursing service they had hired for times like this. Let him call Doris Dickens.

She made the face again. Yes, she said. She put a little growl in it. Yessss, yesss . . .

She reached down and turned off her phone for good.


You can read the final installment in our summer issue.

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.

While many of the names in this story are real, the events involved are totally fictional.

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