Chapter 2




The Florida Keys were even more lush and green and full of vibrant color than Jessica remembered from her previous trip. Everywhere she looked there was green – not the dusky, dark green of pines and spruce trees, but the emerald green of palm, buttonwood, bird-of-paradise, and other tropical plants.

Overwhelmed by her surroundings, Jessica leaned back and sighed.

            “Happy, Jess?” George asked with a smile, putting a hand on her arm.

            “Very,” she replied, once again gazing out the taxi’s window to take in the tropical view rushing past. “It’s such a change from the world we left behind!”

            They were riding in one of Key West’s famed pink taxicabs, on their way from the island’s modest airport to their hotel. The road from the airport to the heart of Key West’s Old Town ran along the south shore of the island, providing spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea in all its turquoise glory.  Their driver, a chatty young man who had introduced himself as Timothy, enthusiastically pointed out various landmarks and sights to his passengers as they traveled.

            “You seem to know a lot about Key West, Timothy,” Jessica, ever curious about the people she encountered, commented to him. “Are you from here?”

            “No, ma’am,” he replied. “I don’t even qualify as a ‘freshwater conch.’ I’m from Canada, actually – but I’m spending the winter down here to earn a little extra money.”

            George looked puzzled. “Freshwater … conch?  What’s that?”

            Timothy laughed. “It’s a local term, sir,” he said. “People born in the Florida Keys are called ‘conchs,’ after the native seashell found around here.  Anyone who lives in the Keys but was born elsewhere is a ‘freshwater conch.’”

            “I see,” said George. “And what, then, are seasonal residents such as yourself called?”

            “Snowbirds,” said Timothy. “Not the most flattering term in the world, but there it is. It could be worse, I suppose – I hear that up in Maine, they call the out-of-staters ‘people from away.’”

            George glanced at Jessica, who merely smiled and shrugged.

            As they approached Old Town, the condominiums and newer buildings gave way to the more traditional frame houses that Key West was famous for. Tall Victorians, Georgian revivals, and Southern shotgun-style homes bedecked with ornate gingerbread trim and fronted by picket fences sat close together on pleasant residential blocks.  Jessica mused that if it weren’t for the fact that the houses were painted every shade of the rainbow and graced by tropical gardens, the effect was not unlike that of a small town in New England.

            After making a couple of turns that took them away from the main road, Timothy pulled up in front of a stately Victorian home set back from the street by a wooden fence and a brick courtyard shaded by palms and Poinciana trees. A sign mounted on the fence heralded the name of the place: The Bougainvillea Inn.

            “Here we are,” Timothy announced cheerfully.

While George came around to open Jessica’s door for her, Timothy went to the taxi’s trunk to retrieve their luggage.  Jessica joined him there to help with his task and was surprised to see an assortment of climbing equipment sharing the trunk space with their bags – a coil of nylon rope, various metal anchors, gloves, a harness and helmet, and other technical-looking items whose names she could only guess at.

            “My goodness, Timothy,” she exclaimed as she took her carry-on bag from him. “Are you a mountain climber?”

            Timothy blushed under his tan. “When I’m not driving taxis, yes,” he admitted.

            “There aren’t many mountains to be found around Key West,” George commented.

            “No, that’s true enough,” Timothy answered. “But somehow, I just feel better having the stuff down here with me.” He set the last of their luggage on the sidewalk next to the curb and closed the lid of the trunk while George pulled out one of his traveler’s checks.

            “Here you go,” he said, signing it over and giving it to him. “Keep the change.”

            Timothy looked at the check with appreciation. “Thank you, sir!” he exclaimed. “Enjoy your visit.”

            “Don’t worry, we will,” George assured him, shooting Jessica a smile and a wink.

            Timothy and his pink taxi pulled away, off to pick up his next fare, as Jessica and George picked up their luggage and approached the inn. The front of the old three-storey Victorian was dominated by an impressive wrap-around porch supported by tall columns; on either side of the steps were trellises hung heavy with the climbing bougainvillea vines that had clearly given the place its name.  Beneath the pale blue ceiling of the porch itself were clusters of wicker chairs and side tables that seemed to invite guests to come sit and watch the world go by.

            George opened the screen door for Jessica, who stepped inside the mansion’s soaring foyer and looked around in awe. The open space had been cleverly converted to hold the inn’s office while preserving the house’s original architecture; the front desk was tucked unobtrusively under the curve of the graceful mahogany staircase that led to the upper floors.  Antique benches, upholstered with cushions of rich fabric in a tropical floral pattern, were set against the plaster walls to hold suitcases and other items while guests checked in. Other aged pieces of dark wood held an assortment of brochures advertising various Key West attractions.  In a corner, an indoor fountain provided soothing sound to cover any noise coming from the street. A crystal chandelier supplemented the abundant natural light that poured down from a tall arched window on the second floor.

            “Good afternoon,” a young woman at the front desk said pleasantly. “Are you checking in?”

            “Yes, we are,” George said, as he and Jessica approached the desk together. “I believe you have a reservation under the name Sutherland?”

            The desk clerk checked her computer. “Ah, yes. A room for two, five nights.” She reached under the counter and produced two plastic cards with magnetic strips. “Here are your room keys. You’re in room 301 – that’s up this staircase on the third floor, facing the street.  You should find everything you need already waiting for you there.  And don’t forget our complimentary continental breakfast tomorrow morning, out back in the courtyard by the pool – we begin serving at 7:30.  Like everything else in Key West, breakfast is ‘come as you are.’”

            “That sounds perfect,” said Jessica, accepting one of the key cards and placing it in her purse.

            “Is there anything else I can help you with?” the clerk asked.

            “Just one thing,” said George. “Is there anyplace you would recommend for dinner – something close by, within walking distance, and not too formal?”

            The clerk thought for a moment. “Try Mangia Mangia,” she said. “It’s a local favorite – Italian food, not too expensive, and nice without being fancy.  And it’s only about four blocks away from here, an easy walk.”

            “Thank you,” George said. “That should do perfectly.”

            They ascended the sweeping staircase and found 301, which was at the end of a hallway that led down the east wing of the house. George slipped his key card into the electronic card reader lock; it was accepted readily and they heard the bolt draw back with a click. He opened the door, and ushered Jessica in.

            “George!” she exclaimed as she entered. “This room is beautiful!”

            It was definitely not the typical standard-issue hotel room that she was used to from her travels.  Instead, it was clear that whoever had outfitted the room had done so with the tradition of the Florida Keys foremost in mind.  The matching furniture was all constructed of wicker painted white to compliment the cool green of the walls, while the original hardwood floors of the room, recently refinished and stained dark, had been left exposed. Wooden blinds supplemented with translucent gauzy curtains of moss-green covered the tall windows that overlooked the street and side yard of the property; they had been left half-open, allowing the sea breeze to gently billow the curtains with each breath of perfumed air.  In addition to the breeze from the windows, the air of the room was kept cool by a fan mounted in the middle of the high ceiling; the wide blades had been fashioned in the shape of broad palm fronds in keeping with the décor of the room.  Lest the room come across as too plain, someone had made sure to accent the wicker chairs and settee with throw pillows of blazing pink and orange.  The same colors dominated the handmade quilt that covered the queen-sized bed.  Two doors flanked the wicker headboard of the bed; one led to the room’s private bath, and the other to a roomy walk-in closet. Original paintings, probably the work of local artists or someone associated with the inn itself, adorned the walls.

            Jessica set her purse down on the glass-topped wicker bureau that was set under one of the windows and turned in a slow circle, taking the room in.

            “I think,” she said dreamily, “that we shall be very comfortable here.  Maybe too comfortable – we may not want to go home!”

            “That’s a risk we’ll just have to take,” George said, setting down his own bags and putting his arms around her. “I picked this place out from a website on the Internet. I take it you approve of my choice?”

            “Approve?  George, you have surpassed yourself!” Jessica exclaimed. “So, what’s next – shall we go down and check out this courtyard and poolside area the desk clerk mentioned?”

            “In a little bit, perhaps,” George murmured, gently lifting her chin and bending his head down to kiss her.

            Jessica felt a wave of warmth sweep over her that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature in the room. “In a little bit?” she asked him. “What should we do in the meantime, then?”

            In response, George took her hand in his and kissed it. “I was thinking that first we ought to try out this bed,” he said.

            “Do you have any doubts about it?” she asked with a smile as he led her over to it.

            “None at all,” he assured her as he pulled her unresisting down on to the colorful quilt, “but it never hurts to be absolutely sure, don’t you think?”

            “Of course not,” she replied as she sank among the pillows piled at the head of the bed. “But I think you have an ulterior motive.”

            George chuckled as he took her in his arms. “You were always too clever by half.”


            Mangia Mangia proved to be a small family-run restaurant set on the corner of two quiet residential side streets. The interior was cozy and simply furnished, with a bar to one side and a group of small tables and chairs of dark wood at the other. The walls, faux-finished with warm, buttery yellow paints, were accented with unframed canvases featuring still lifes done in bold colors.  As soon as Jessica and George stepped inside they were greeted by the proprietor of the place, who hurried out from behind the bar, grabbed a couple of menus, and escorted them through the dining room and out a door leading to a walled garden area to the side of the building.

            This proved to be where most of the restaurant’s diners could be found. Given that the weather was clear and the temperature just about perfect, Jessica could hardly blame them for choosing to dine al fresco, beautiful though the indoor dining room may be.  Paved with brick set in an intricate pattern, the outdoor dining area provided glass-topped tables and patio chairs set at discreet distances under market umbrellas of dark green fabric, blending into the colors of the canopy above in the fading light of evening. Climbing vines and masonry urns filled with flowers set along the perimeter of the garden softened the brickwork walls and made the space seem much larger than it really was.  Aside from the candles set on each table the ambient lighting was subtle and indirect, just enough for the wait staff to maneuver without spoiling the romantic atmosphere.

            Jessica and George were settled at a table in the corner of the garden with their menus and an astonishingly large wine list.

            “It’s really quite something to be presented with a wine list that is considerably larger than the menu,” George commented as he paged through the leather-bound booklet. “Some of these vintages are quite rare – look here, they have Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon – at the price I would expect to pay for it as well, I should add.”

            Jessica looked at the listing he indicated, and her eyes grew wide in amazement. “At that price, I would hope that it would taste as good as its billing,” she said.

            “Indeed. Do you have a preference, Elf?”

            She shook her head. “I’m completely overwhelmed,” she confessed. “You’re the wine expert – why don’t you choose? I’ll go along with whatever you recommend.”

            By the time their waiter returned, George had picked out a bottle of fine Italian pinot grigio that he assured her she would enjoy.  When the wine was delivered to their table George took an experimental sip, and pronounced his choice to be entirely satisfactory.  Reassured by his endorsement, Jessica allowed the waiter to fill her own glass, after which the rest of the bottle was left for them in a small bucket of ice.

            George held up his glass, the white wine in it glinting golden in the flickering candlelight.

            “To a week in Key West with you, Elf,” he declared.

            Jessica smiled, touched the rim of her glass to his, and tried the wine for herself. “You chose well, George,” she said with approval.

            The specialty of Mangia Mangia was its homemade pasta, which their waiter assured them was made fresh every day.

            “I always believe in going with a restaurant’s specialty,” Jessica said, and requested linguini with the house’s own clams in white wine sauce. George selected tortellini with a marinara sauce.

            After they had placed their dinner orders, Jessica sat back and observed the scene around them, appreciably sipping her wine and letting the muted kitchen sounds and quiet murmur of the diners around them lull her into a contented quiet.  Still, looking at her George could tell from the bright sparkle of her eyes that as calm as she appeared, she was still thinking.

            “Penny for your thoughts,” he said, drawing her back into the here-and-now. “I can practically see the wheels turning.”

            Jessica smiled at him. “You don’t miss much, do you,” she said. “I was just observing our dinner companions, seeing what I could learn by looking at them.”

            George took the wine bottle from the ice and poured a splash more into their glasses. “And what have you deduced?” he asked.

            Jessica leaned forward and told him in a low voice, “The young couple the next table over just got engaged; she keeps admiring her diamond ring and the way it reflects the candlelight.  The two men behind you are father and son, judging by their respective ages and the family resemblance, especially in the area of male-pattern baldness.  And in that far corner is a bachelorette party – five young women who obviously know each other well making a fuss over the sixth, who looks just a little bit stressed. Probably her impending nuptials are scheduled for tomorrow.”

            “Cold feet?” George asked.

            “No, I don’t think so; she looks genuinely happy, like a prospective bride should. But you know how complicated weddings can be.” She took another sip of wine and left the subject at that.

            “It’s amazing how much you can learn about a person just by looking at them,” George commented.  He paused then, and mused, “As well as we know each other, there are many things I have yet to learn about you, Elf.”

            “And I, you,” Jessica agreed. She grinned then as an idea occurred to her, and said, “Should we make this vacation an opportunity to venture into some of that uncharted territory?”

            The suggestion intrigued George. “I’m game if you are,” he said. “Shall we set some ground rules first?”

            Jessica tapped the stem of her wine glass thoughtfully. “Probably. I don’t want to be caught completely off guard! How about this: let’s set an equal number of questions for each of us – say, ten and ten?”

            “Sounds fair,” George agreed. “No topic is off-limits?”

            Their waiter passed by their table leaving a basket of fresh-baked bread in his wake; Jessica gave him a faint smile of thanks. “No topic is off-limits. And how about this: you need to use all ten of your questions before we leave Key West.”

            “Done and done,” said George, reaching for a piece of the bread. He tore it in half, and offered her the other piece.

            “All right, then,” said Jessica, accepting it and sitting back in her chair expectantly. “You go first.”

“Very well,” George said, thinking. He decided to start with something straightforward.  “How about this one: what’s the most unusual method you’ve used to murder a character in one of your books?”

Jessica thought about this question. “Well,” she said at last, favoring him with a sly smile, “once I put a poisonous snake into a box of chocolates.”

George laughed out loud. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “That’s terrible! How do you dream up that sort of thing?”

“It’s the result of needing to top myself,” Jessica told him. “I didn’t start out writing about snakes in chocolate boxes, after all. But as the quality of my writing improved, readers came to expect each new book to be at least as good, if not better, than the last, and they don’t like repetition. Hence, the need to be creative.”

“I never considered that aspect of being a successful author,” George said thoughtfully.

“It keeps me on my toes. But now it’s your turn – what’s the strangest case you ever worked on?”

“That would be a bank robbery I investigated while I was still with the force in Edinburgh,” George answered promptly. “The robber got away with seven thousand pounds, cash.”

Jessica looked at him, puzzled. “That’s not so strange,” she said.

“It is when you take into consideration the fact that the robber was wearing a gorilla costume as a disguise,” said George.

This made Jessica laugh in turn. “How did that case turn out?”

“Oh, I solved it without much trouble,” said George. “It was all very cut and dried, actually – there were only two costume shops in Edinburgh at the time, and only one of those had rented out any gorilla suits in the preceding week. I had the bleck nabbed by the end of the day. That was fairly early in my career.” The memory of his early days in law enforcement brought another question to mind: “What was the first mystery you ever solved?”

            Jessica thought back. “It was the murder of a German spy, aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic,” she replied. “I didn’t solve it all by myself, though. I had some help from a friend, and together we also thwarted the assassination of a British admiral.”

            George was confused. “German spy?” he said. “British admiral? Surely I should be familiar with this case. When was this, anyway?”

            “1940. I was, oh, nine years old at the time.”

            “Remarkable,” said George. “And here I thought your crime-solving career began with the publication of your first book.”

            Jessica took a sip of her wine and gave George a knowing smile. “Lots of people think that,” she said, but she did not elaborate further.


After leaving Mangia Mangia George and Jessica decided to take the long way back to their inn – it was a pleasant night, and there was still a glow in the west to provide them with light to see by in addition to the street lamps that lined their way. 

“This street looks familiar,” Jessica commented as they turned the corner at a quiet intersection.  “I can’t say for sure in the darkness, but this almost looks like the street where … yes, it is!”

“Is what?” George asked.

In response, Jessica stopped in front of the large house on the corner, which George guessed was painted purple in the dim light, and said, “Good evening, Truman.  How are things?”

A man that George had not previously observed rose from where he’d been sitting in an old-fashioned rocker in the shadows of the house’s wrap-around front porch, idly watching the world go by. He came to the porch’s rail and leaned on it, peering at the two of them by the light of a nearby street lamp.

“Jessica Fletcher!” he exclaimed in astonishment. “Well, I’ll be!”

“That’s right, Truman,” Jessica said, smiling. “It’s good to see you again. This is my friend, George Sutherland. We were just taking the scenic route back from dinner.”

Truman sprang down the short flight of steps from the porch, crossed the space to the gate at the sidewalk’s edge, and bounded through to greet them with an energy that belied his years. First he greeted Jessica with an enormous hug that practically lifted her off her feet. When he released her and turned to greet him, George was half-afraid that he was in for the same treatment, but to his relief Truman merely extended his hand.

“Truman Buckley,” he said, taking George’s hand in his own firm grasp and shaking it.

“Doctor Truman Buckley,” Jessica amended teasingly. “He and Seth went to medical school together,” she explained to George.

Truman gave her a friendly scowl as he released George’s hand. “Only my patients call me ‘Doctor,’ Jessica,” he said to her. “To everyone else, especially you, I’m just plain old Truman. Come on up and sit for a spell,” he continued, inviting them back up on to the purple house’s porch with him and motioning for them to seat themselves on the wicker furniture. “This is a truly unexpected pleasure!  Can I get you anything to drink?  Wine? Beer? Something stronger?”

George and Jessica each held up a hand to politely decline the offered libations. “No, thank you … Truman,” George said, stifling the urge to use the honorific ‘Doctor.’ “We split a lovely bottle of pinot grigio at Mangia Mangia just a short while ago. Perhaps some other time.”

“Some other time. I’m going to hold you to that,” said Truman, re-seating himself on the rocker. “So – where’s Boomer?”

“Home in Cabot Cove,” Jessica answered.

Truman seemed genuinely surprised by her answer. “You mean he’s not here with you?”

“No-o,” she replied with a little hesitation. “No, George and I are here by ourselves.”

Truman’s knowing smile indicated that he had caught the unspoken subtext of her comment. “No chaperone, you mean.”

It was impossible to tell for sure in the subdued light, but George was certain that Jessica was blushing. Fortunately for her, Truman let the matter drop and moved on to more neutral topics.

“So, how long are you in Key West for?” he asked.

“Just shy of a week,” George replied. “It’s all the time we could squeeze out of Jessica’s midwinter break from the university.”

“I see,” said Truman. “And where are you staying?”

“The Bougainvillea Inn,” said George. “Do you know it?”

“Oh, yes.  The owners are frequent patients of mine – I provide them with some chondroitin preparations for their arthritis. They say that between the chondroitin and the weather down here, they’re feeling the youngest they’ve felt in years. Nice folks. Beautiful place. They’ve put a lot of effort into the grounds as well as the house itself.”

“Are you busy this week, Truman?” Jessica asked. “It would be our pleasure to take you to dinner one of these nights while we’re here, so we can get properly caught up.”

“You know I’d love to, Jessica, but I’m afraid my calendar is pretty full. We’ve got a medical symposium going on here this week, and I’m one of the organizers.”

“Knowing you, it’s not just any medical symposium,” Jessica guessed.

Truman laughed. “No, of course it’s not. It’s focusing on some of the more non-traditional medical fields – acupuncture, aromatherapy, and of course, my specialty, herbal medicine.”

“Are you still practicing?” George asked.

“Oh, yes. I have a small office and dispensary out back. I don’t think it’s in me to ever retire.”

George saw Jessica stifling a yawn out of the corner of his eye, and glanced at his watch. “We’d love to stay longer and chat,” he said, “but we only just arrived today, and it was a long trip. I probably should be getting Jess back to our hotel.”

“Of course,” Truman said, getting to his feet with them. “I’m sure we’ll still run into each other while you’re here, symposium or no symposium. Don’t hesitate to drop in anytime – if I’m not here, just leave me a note.”

“We’ll do that,” Jessica promised. “Good night, Truman.”

“Good night, kids,” he replied with a smile and a wink.


They returned to the inn, where the absence of any of the guests and the balmy night air tempted them to linger outside in the courtyard. Subtle uplighting illuminated the leaves of the trees and tropical plants, augmenting the turquoise glow of the pool lighting. They found a pair of comfortable chairs set in a secluded corner and took in the view of the stars above.

            George reached across the space between them and took her hand. “What are you thinking?” he asked her.

            Jessica laughed. “I’m thinking how odd it is that I’m sitting outside in the middle of February looking up at Orion in the night sky!” she said. “I could never do this in Maine.”

            “Not in February, anyway.” He was quiet for a moment then asked, “Do you ever wish upon stars, Elf?”

            Jessica turned her keen glance from the sky to him. “Is this one of your ten questions?”

            “It can be, if you like. But in that case, let me modify it just a bit: are you superstitious in any way?”

            “You mean, do I watch out for black cats, walk around ladders instead of under them, avoid the number thirteen, that sort of thing?”

            George shrugged in the relative darkness of their secluded spot. “It’s an open-ended question.”

            “All right, then. To me, black cats are just cats. I walk around ladders only because walking under them is a good way to get something dropped on your head. Thirteen is merely the number that comes between twelve and fourteen.” She paused then, and smiled softly before continuing. ‘I have, however, whispered, ‘Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight’ on more than one occasion.”

            This admission pleased George, though he couldn’t say exactly why. “And your absolute insistence that no one read your work before it’s finished – is that also a superstition?”

            “Part tradition, part superstition, I suppose,” she admitted. “I haven’t given my reasons for it much thought – it’s almost more of a reflex than anything else.”

            “So I noticed,” George said, thinking back to an unfortunate incident that had resulted in his fingers being caught in a laptop computer abruptly slammed shut. “Well, that answer is fair enough. Your turn.”

            “Well …” She quickly looked around to make sure they were alone in the courtyard, and then looked up at George shyly. “What do Scottish men wear under their kilts?”

            George laughed. “In Scotland we have a saying: ‘Good girls don’t ask, and bad girls find out for themselves!’ Why do you want to know?”

            “Because I’m curious,” Jessica, blushing, said in her own defense. “And we did agree that no topic would be off-limits in our game of Twenty Questions. Does that make me a ‘bad’ girl?”

            “No,” said George, making very little effort to hide his amusement, “but it does make you an unoriginal one. Your question, after all, is merely a version of the classic ‘boxers or briefs’ chestnut.  Really, Jessica. Is that the best you could come up with?”

            “It’s a legitimate question,” she insisted. Looking as persuasive as she could, she added, “And I really am curious to know the answer.”

            George could never resist her when she looked at him like that. “All right,” he said, relenting. “The answer is … it depends.”

            “What do you mean, ‘it depends’?”

            “The situation dictates what is – or isn’t - worn,” George explained. “These days, most Scottish men do wear some form of undergarment beneath the kilt if they are taking part in the Highland Games, playing the bagpipes, or at a social function where women are also in attendance.”

            Jessica frowned – George’s explanation covered just about every circumstance in which she could imagine kilts being worn, and the news came as something of a letdown. “I see.”

            “Sorry to disappoint,” George said, a smile playing about his lips as he crossed his long legs and sat back in his chair. “Of course, there are some hardy souls that prefer to wear their kilts ‘regimental style.’”

            Jessica’s interest perked up at this. “And what is that, exactly?” she asked.

            George idly examined his fingernails, a picture of nonchalance. “Well,” he said, “in military situations, custom dictates that nothing be worn under the kilt that would hinder free movement. This is where the term ‘regimental’ comes from.”

            Jessica dropped her eyes coyly and smiled. “So if one wears their kilt regimental style, it’s the same as ‘going commando’?” she asked.

            “I believe the phrases are related, yes.”

            “And you?”

            “And I … what?” he asked, pretending to not understand her question. It was so much fun to tease her sometimes, especially when the conversation turned to topics such as this.

            Jessica rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “And you … do you follow the modern dictates, or do you prefer, as you so eloquently put it, the regimental style?”

            “You’ll have to wait until we go upstairs – perhaps I’ll tell you then.”

            She smiled at this answer and subsided, returning her gaze to the twinkling stars overhead.