Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 9

By Robert Plunket July 1, 2009

In last month’s chapter, Mr. Spryke and Cliff Roles disguised themselves as gay German tourists to escape discovery by the police, who were searching for them in connection with two Sarasota murders. Mr. Spryke and Cliff were trying to find the real killer; and after spotting amateur actress Hailey Harper Howe with art dealer Marco Massima, they realized that the two were in cahoots and that their next victim would be rich widow Doris Dickens. Mr. Spryke tried to call Mary Alice to tell her, but she was headed to The Colony for a tryst with Rick and did not answer her phone.


It was a perfect Sarasota morning. Perfect for murder, that is.


Off in the distance, Marco Massima (aka Frank Phelan from Frankfort, Kentucky) could see the skyline of Sarasota. It looked so big and impressive from here, five miles out in the Gulf. So new and shiny and glamorous. And so easy to fool. Good-looking newcomers were always blowing into town, creating an impression. Sarasota believed what they said. Never bothered to check references. Never found out about that fraud conviction back in Houston. Or that first wife who died under mysterious circumstances on that ski trail in Aspen.


He looked to the north. There, just visible in the distance, was Longboat Towers. He could see Doris’s penthouse. Just think. In less than an hour that penthouse would be his. Here he was, 33—OK, 35—with his own penthouse on Longboat Key. Not bad for somebody who started life as the eighth child of an illiterate coal miner.


He looked at the penthouse’s current owner. What a foolish old lady. How he had grown to hate her. Her neediness. Her demands for attention. The boring stories she told over and over. The way she ate her salad, with the food falling out of her mouth. Her sticky fingers. He could barely stand to even touch her.


And she was so stingy, so suspicious. She had taken all his wits, this one. The others were easy, but not Doris. She read every document, everything he gave her to sign. She wanted to know all the details. She schemed to get a better deal. Take this Wellness Community cruise. It was strictly for cancer patients and the Wellness Community volunteers. Well, she’d had cancer 30 years ago. She was still milking it for the free boat rides.


Magda Barlow had been a piece of cake. A needy divorcée with the largest Lladro collection on the west coast of Florida—that was a no-brainer. He poisoned her on the second date. And old Mr. Kneff had been Hailey Harper Howe’s responsibility. That was the deal—he did the women and she did the men. Poor clumsy Hailey had to beat him to death with an andiron, but that was Hailey for you—not quite up to his standards. He smiled as he pictured the death scene—Hailey clobbering the old man as he clung to her ankle with that fierce grip of his. She dragged him 20 feet before he finally let go. Her ankle was black and blue for weeks.


He wished Hailey better luck this morning. It was her job to get rid of that stupid decorator. He was trouble. Always showing up at the wrong time. But with both Doris and the decorator finally gone, he and Hailey would have control over $50 million in real estate, stock portfolios, trusts, strip malls.


Then—and this was his favorite part—on their celebratory vacation in Costa Rica, Hailey would meet with an accident and he would have all the money to himself.


He looked at Doris. He had slipped her a Valium to calm her down for the kill, but she was bouncing around like crazy. Everyone had gathered on the far side of the deck, the sunny side. They were facing out to the Gulf, watching celebrity chef Judi Gallagher give tips for cooking meals high in antioxidants. Judi held up a zucchini, and Doris led the shrieks of laughter.


Let’s roll, he told himself.



                                                                        * * *



Back on the mainland, Mr. Spryke was experiencing the worst phone service of his life. His battery was almost dead, he was stuck in an empty, unfinished art gallery in the Rosemary District with terrible reception, and no matter what number he dialed there was no answer.


Rick was “unavailable.” That was unusual, because Rick was always available, so happy to get a call from Mr. Spryke—or anybody—who might suggest some plan that would get him away from home. And Mary Alice was also so anxious not to miss a call that she checked her messages compulsively, every 15 minutes.


And now they were both “unavailable”? At the same time? What was going on? He desperately needed help. Doris’ life was in imminent danger, and if he and Cliff went to the police now—well, they would be pegged as the escaped murderer and the crazy old man. By the time their credibility was established, Doris would be dead.


And where on earth could she be? He’d been trying her penthouse on Longboat since yesterday when this whole debacle started. Where was she?


And where, come to think of it, was Cliff? He’d left on a food run 30 minutes ago. How long did it take to go through a drive-thru? Mr. Spryke fervently prayed that Cliff wasn’t getting overconfident. True, his gay German tourist disguise was a stroke of genius, and his guttural, fluent matersprech terribly convincing, but still—their good luck couldn’t last forever.


And they had to get out of this art gallery. This was the worst place they could be hiding out. But it wasn’t as if they had a lot of choices. When they’d gotten home from stalking Hailey Harper Howe yesterday, what should be parked at the far end of the block but her white Mercedes.


The stalkers were being stalked. They kept driving.


Mr. Spryke had not brought his wallet. He thought it ruined the line of his lilac slacks. So now they were stuck with $20 between them, no credit cards or ID, and nowhere to go. Driving around aimlessly had become a little too intense. Every time they saw a police car, Mr. Spryke would scream and wave his hands around and Cliff would grab the wheel and swat at him. Pedestrians were starting to stare.


But Mr. Spryke did have his keys, and among them was the key to Gallerie DorMar, his next decorating project. They’d parked at the Methodist Church across the street and gingerly checked it out. The front door was littered with old newspapers. Clearly nobody had been here in a while, so they decided to chance it.


But that was last night. Now Mr. Spryke was bone weary after trying to sleep on the concrete floor and making as many calls as he dared with his low battery to numbers that for some mysterious reason just refused to answer.


Where was Cliff? They had to get out of here.


He tried Mary Alice and then Rick one more time.




What are you doing?” Mary Alice asked as she watched Rick walk the length of their room at the Colony. His back was so beautiful, so broad at the shoulders and then tapering down to that narrow waist and that firm and shapely butt. So different from Dr. Wiggins’ fat ass.


“Just checking my messages, sweetie,” Rick said, reaching for his pants.


“No, no,” protested Mary Alice. She struck a seductive pose on the bed. “What about this message?”


Rick looked at her and dropped his pants.


Afterward, they stood on the balcony and looked out at the Gulf.


“It’s so beautiful here,” said Mary Alice dreamily.


“And so cheap,” Rick added. “I had no idea they had such great deals here.”


“Well, yes, that, too,” Mary Alice agreed. “From now on it will be our place.”


“Like Denny’s?” Rick said, rubbing his cheek against her ear.


“Yes,” she said. “Exactly like Denny’s.”


Rick kissed her. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. We’ve got a lot of obstacles ahead. You’re Lakewood Ranch. I’m Pinecraft. But I do want you to know one thing.”


“What’s that, darling?”


“You’re the best thing that’s happened to me since I passed my contractor’s exam.”


“Oh, Rick,” Mary Alice said and melted into his arms.


“You see that boat way out there?”






“That one?”


“No, that one.”


“Which one?”


“That one.”


“Yes, I see it, darling,” said Mary Alice, although frankly she had no idea which one he was talking about.


“Fancy rich people on their big yacht. But do you think they could possibly be as happy as we are at this moment?”


“Never, darling. Never.”


They kissed again and he led her back into the room.



                                              * * *


Approximately 20 yards from the boat that Mary Alice couldn’t quite see, Marco Massima dog-paddled patiently and waited for the old lady to catch up with him. There was one place, because of the angle of the hull and where the people were, that they couldn’t be seen from.


“Hurry, darling,” he cooed. “I’m waiting.”


“Oh, Marco,” the old lady cooed back with a fluttering giggle.


“Not so loud.”


She was a tricky old broad, this one. She had been since the very beginning, when Molly Schechter introduced them at that UCP gala. All the hours he spent listening to whatever drivel she came out with, all the dry cleaning bills from her greasy fingers all over his good sports jacket. Well, now it was payback time. This was one murder he might even enjoy.


The old lady was slow, but she was a surprisingly good swimmer. She did 20 laps daily in the condo pool, something she bragged about incessantly.


He flexed his wrists and biceps, preparing. Those extra workouts at Evolution Spa had really paid off. Never had he felt so strong, so capable of what he now had to do.


“I’m here,” she announced, gliding up to him and striking a pose.  He took hold of her shoulders.


“Oh, my,” she croaked, delighted. He’d never gotten quite this physical before.


He gave her a smile, the most devastating one in his repertoire. She gave a little quiver. In her eyes he could see the ecstasy, the surrender. Once his mouth met hers, she would melt, a passive blob in his arms, so easy to push down and hold under the surface…


He moved in for the kill.




Back at Gallerie DorMar, Mr. Spryke felt his batteries go dead. OK, so that was it. They had to get out of here immediately. They would eat their cheeseburgers or whatever Cliff had bought and drive around, trying to come up with a new plan. Maybe it was time to go to the police, as much as he dreaded the idea—


He heard the key in the door. Finally.


The door swung open. It was Hailey Harper Howe.


They both froze. Hailey Harper Howe found her wits first. With her stiletto heel she pushed the door closed, then reached into her Prada bag and pulled out a small silver pistol.


“So,” she said with a smile. “We meet at last.”


Mr. Spryke felt his saliva turn to dust. So this was it? This is what it all boiled down to? Shot to death in his lilac slacks on the floor of an unfinished art gallery in the Rosemary District?


“Perfect timing, I must say. Doris was going to be the easy one. She goes on her little yacht cruise with the Wellness Community and she doesn’t come back. You were the problem. Always one step ahead of us. Well, not anymore.” She gestured with her pistol. “Move over there. I don’t want to get blood all over that beautiful white wall.”


Mr. Spryke, who had been reclining on the floor in the pose made famous by Madame Recamier, began to inch over. “I was going to paint it anyway,” he said.


“Oh, yeah?” said Hailey Harper Howe with an evil laugh. “What color?”




Green? In an art gallery? What kind of decorator are you?”


“I’m a Sarasota decorator,” he said proudly. “We don’t settle. We innovate.”


There was a pause.


“What were you going to do about the floor?”


Mr. Spryke glared at her. “Why should I tell you? You’re going to kill me.”


“I’m going to kill you sooner if you don’t tell me about the floor.”


Like Scheherazade on a more famous occasion, Mr. Spryke saw a slim ray of hope. If he could just keep the decorating tips coming…


“Polished concrete,” he said. “It’s really great in a high-traffic area. And if you add tiny metallic shavings, it gives off a shine. It’s such an exciting, edgy look. Very urban. Perfect for an art gallery.”


Hailey Harper Howe frowned. “But I like hardwood floors.”


“And they’re wonderful. You can’t go wrong with hardwood. But for something that’s really going to make a statement—”


“I’m back,” Cliff called out as he entered with a white take-out container. His eyes met Hailey Harper Howe’s. This time the three of them froze.


“You.” Cliff all but spat.


“Scene stealer,” Hailey Harper Howe hissed. “Ham.”


Mr. Spryke thought fast. What could he do? What diversion could he create? He began to crawl toward the office.


“Hold it!” Hailey Harper Howe turned the gun toward him. At the same moment Cliff pitched the container he was holding toward the woman he hated so much. He put all his fury into the toss, and it flew toward her with deadly speed and accuracy. She had barely time to open her mouth in surprise before it hit her square in the face. The lid popped off and a pint of Morton’s chili flowed down her front. The gun she was holding flew from her hand. It bounced on the floor, then skidded toward Mr. Spryke.


For a moment all was confusion. Cliff leapt toward Hailey Harper Howe and grabbed at her, but the chili made her slippery. She shook off his grasp and stumbled ahead, out the door and into the alley. Mr. Spryke had the hardest time getting to his feet, and by the time Cliff helped him and they made it outside, she was climbing into the white Mercedes. A trail of chili followed her.


“Let her go,” Mr. Spryke said. “We have to rescue the old lady.”


“She’s going to ruin the interior of her car,” Cliff said with a cackle.


Mr. Spryke turned to him. “Cliff,” he said, tears coming to his eyes. “You saved my life.”


“Oh, I didn’t save your life,” Cliff said modestly, kicking at the dirt. “Morton’s chili saved your life. Well, that and a sensational cricket toss, if I do say so myself.”


They jumped in the rental car and headed for Marina Jack. Mr. Spryke wasn’t quite sure what this yacht cruise was that Hailey Harper Howe had been talking about, but chances were it left from the marina there. And he seemed to remember some sort of Coast Guard shack there. They could get help. They could radio all the yachts—




An ambulance, sirens wailing, overtook them. Sure enough, it pulled into the marina.


“Oh, no,” said Mr. Spryke. “We’re too late.”


The tourists and joggers and moms and kids watched the ambulance as it threaded its way through the crowd, closely followed by Cliff and Mr. Spryke. There, lying on the wooden dock, surrounded by distraught cancer survivors, was a black body bag.


Mr. Spryke clutched his chest. “Doris,” he moaned. “My own sweet Doris.” Yes, she might have been a fussy, difficult old woman, yes, she might have been a pain in the neck, but nobody deserved to die like that, drowned by a homicidal maniac in the Gulf of Mexico—


Then Mr. Spryke noticed that Doris was standing at the head of the body bag, wailing louder than anybody.


He and Cliff jumped from the car and ran up to her. She saw them and fell into Mr. Spryke’s arms.


“I killed him,” she sobbed. “We were swimming and he kissed me. It was so wonderful. So I kissed him back. I guess he wasn’t expecting it. He started choking. He swallowed water. Then more water. I tried to help him. But I couldn’t. I started screaming. I tried to get him back to the boat. He kept struggling. Then—he disappeared under the water.” It was all too much for her, and she clung fiercely to Mr. Spryke.


“It’s all right, Doris,” Mr. Spryke said, holding her to him. “You didn’t kill him.”


“Yes, I did,” she wailed. “I killed him with a kiss!”



                                                            * * *


                                    SEVERAL MONTHS LATER



“Granis oh Lor thy bwessing pon dese die gifs which we bout to ceive, we ask in jesus name amen.”


“Yeah!” Everyone clapped and cheered. Travis beamed proudly. “Was I good, Daddy?”


“Yes, son,” Rick said. “You were perfect.”


Mr. Spryke had to blink back a tear as he looked around his Thanksgiving table. The feast was splendid, as well it should have been. He’d been preparing it for three days. It was the same meal his mother used to make, and though nobody could do it like his mother, he had to admit he came pretty close.


How lucky he was to have everyone near and dear to him gathered for his first Sarasota Thanksgiving. Rick and Travis, of course. Travis was doing so much better now that he was attending that special school. He knew the alphabet and was starting to show a marked talent for drawing. “Just like me when I was that age,” thought Mr. Spryke.


He watched as Doris Dickens smiled at the boy. That look on her face—he’d never seen it before. It was hard to describe. “Benevolent” might be the best word. True, she had been quite a mess for a while, when Marco’s deception was disclosed and she had to sort out the disaster he had been to her finances. But then she met and fell in love with an even younger man—Travis Yoder. She was now his Grammie Doris, and nothing was too good for him. She was even setting up a special trust fund so he’d always have the care he needed.


For his part, Rick washed her windows every Saturday.


Rick was finding his footing. He had left Debbie—or rather she had left him—and now his life was focused and steady. Every penny was saved and he was steadily repaying his debts. In a bittersweet kind of way, Mr. Spryke felt Rick had backed away a little. Their long lazy conversations were less frequent now. Rick didn’t need him so much. He was becoming his own man.


Come to think of it, he now had those long conversations with Mary Alice. What was that all about, this sudden friendship they had developed? It was so unlikely, but there it was. They’d sit in the office and go on for hours about nothing at all. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if sometimes they even went to the movies together, or something like that.


And Mary Alice was certainly looking content. She’d calmed down a lot, not so jittery and manic. Her weight was down, too, and her skin was looking fabulous. “What’s your secret?” he asked, and boy, did she blush.


Mr. Spryke didn’t lack for company, though. Cliff was always inviting him places. The theater, or a gala, or even just a meal at New York, New York. He’d even been on Cliff’s radio show, where he spoke, as Cliff put it, “most stimulatingly about décor.”


He looked at his watch. Should they wait dessert? Cliff would be here any minute. He’d promised to come over right after his matinee—his theatrical star was rising and he was currently doing King Lear at the Asolo. True, he did not play Lear—that honor fell to Brad Wallace—but he was, according to theater critic Jay Handelman, “providing audience members with a Fool they will never forget.” And he’d just gotten a national commercial! They were filming it next week in Orlando. Cliff played a lovable grandpa who keeps wandering away from the family picnic.


Everyone wanted to wait for Cliff before they served the three pies—pumpkin, pecan, and mince—so a stretch from the table seemed in order. Mr. Spryke found himself wandering out to the verandah. Dusk was gathering and the sky was purple against the dark palm trees. His glance fell to the street where so many months ago he had first seen that white Mercedes.


Where was Hailey Harper Howe? That was the last question hanging in the air. She had slipped away, and even after a starring appearance on America’s Most Wanted, she still eluded the police. Would she ever turn up? Would she ever return? The thought didn’t bother Mr. Spryke.


“Bring it on,” he whispered under his breath.


“Cwiffie’s here, Cwiffie’s here,” he heard Travis squeal with delight, and he turned to rejoin them. But for one moment he paused and caught his breath. This was when Sarasota was at its most beautiful—just as the sun was setting, late in the day. His oleanders were doing splendidly, along with his hibiscus and even his gardenias, with their strong, pure scent. They were his mother’s favorite.


“How she would have loved it here,” he said to himself, then turned and went inside.




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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