A Recipe for Murder
-- Begun by Kats
This idea for a “round robin” was conceived by Kats – she wrote the basics of the first section, posted it on the internet, then challenged the rest of us to finish it, changing whatever we liked along the way.
A single candle and crackling fire in the fireplace illuminated Jessica Fletcher’s bedroom. She lay propped up in her bed, thick quilts covering her legs and chest. She was chilled to the bone, exhausted emotionally and physically. Jessica looked out the window as the snow swirled outside; it was if they were in the middle of a snow globe. She was numb. She couldn’t feel anything any more; her heart had long since past registering anything beyond the guilt and the grief that she had felt in the past few hours. She heard footsteps and looked over at the door. Seth came in, and the candlelight reflected off his face with a warm glow. He had a tray in his hands, and set it on the night stand.
Seth sat on the edge of her bed and made himself comfortable. Taking her chilled hands in his, he held them in his warm ones briefly. He could see colour returning to Jessica’s cheeks, but she was still chilled through. He tucked the covers up closer and asked, "Can I get you anything else, Jess?"
She shook her head. "No."
Seth drew in a slow breath before going on. "Can you tell me about what happened tonight?"
He saw the struggle on her face, the welling of tears. He let go of her hands and cupped her face in his hands. Her cheeks were still freezing cold.
"Jess,” he said, “I almost lost you tonight. For what ever reason, I understand, but, please tell me what you were doing tonight, and why you felt … that you couldn’t come to me with whatever was wrong."
"Because its my fault. I caused her to die, I killed her," said Jessica in a hoarse voice.
"You couldn’t ever harm any one," Seth began. He saw Jessica withdraw from him, close her eyes to fight back the tears, then open them as they spilt over her cheeks. Seth wiped her tears with his fingers and slid his hands down to take her hands again in his.
"Please, Jess, tell me, help me understand … start at the beginning and tell me."
Jessica closed her eyes, and Seth thought she would avoid what he had said. The she began in the same hoarse voice.
"Selka Dorrity came to me and asked if I could help get her a job at the high school. I knew that since her husband Rory’s death she had been struggling to make ends meet. If I had said no, Selka would still be alive."
Jessica took a moment to take a breath. "I spoke with the principal about Selka and he hired her for the cafeteria. All she had to do was wash dishes in the kitchen. That’s all she did for the first three weeks. She did it well, and without complaint.
“Selka was noticed by the cafeteria manager as being bright, hardworking, and capable of doing so much more than just washing dishes. He arranged for Selka to learn how to do the prep work for the meals, leaving the dish washing to others. She took on this responsibility very seriously. Early in the morning she would come to work and clean, then prepare the food for the breakfasts to be cooked. Selka began to not only clean her prep area, but other places as well - inside the equipment, under the counters, and even in the freezer. It was while she was cleaning in the freezer that she said she discovered the steam ship rounds.
“She knew that they weren’t on the menu, and when they disappeared, she brought it to my attention. I thought they may have been used for the school board meeting. The cafeteria did the catering for that as well as the meal program. Then she came to me about the other food. I didn’t follow up on it, and I should have. The school was always having events, and I put it off as her loneliness."
Seth poured Jessica a cup of tea from the pot and helped her hold it in her shaking hands. She took a few sips from it before she had him put it aside, and for a moment was silent.
"Then what happened?" Seth prompted her.
"I heard rumors of a federal auditor coming, that funds were missing. A very unpleasant man, Ronald Percy was. Selka told me of overhearing an argument between him and the cafeteria manager. Maybe I sounded harsh, but I just told her that it wasn’t her job to worry about what was happening with the auditor. Then she called me two nights ago, and said that the auditor’s car was still at the school - after it was all locked up. I told her there were many reasons, and to go to bed… Seth, I should have seen the signs! I should have known or suspected…" She covered her face with her hands for a moment in silence.
"None of this is your fault, it just happened," Seth said gently.
"But it is!” Jessica flared back. “I went to the principal and let him know of her suspicions. I didn’t know that he would turn blame on her for her not reporting it directly to him. That set off the whole series of events - the manager firing her, and finding the evidence that she was the one taking the funds. The school seized her accounts, and she had to mortgage her home for bail. No one would hire her. And then she called me, and said she had to speak with me, out at the park by the bridge.
“She was angry, and depressed, and leaning on the rail of the bridge. She blamed me for all of it, and said she had proof that she had hidden. That I had to believe her."
Here Jessica fell silent. Seth wondered if the sedative he had given her had finally worked, and glanced out at the snow swirling outside. It had knocked out the power. Andy had been doing his rounds in the park when he happened to discover a purse on the bridge, and recognized it as Jessica’s. His voice was sobbing when he radioed the call that he’d found the two women on the frozen stream below. Selka was dead, and Jessica was half frozen as she held Selka’s body in her arms.
Jessica’s voice was softer now, and a bit slurred as she continued. "She insisted that she was innocent, and then I saw her start to step back. I reached for her, but she caught my arms … she didn’t even scream, and we both went over. I landed on her, Seth. Her body broke my fall, but the weight of my body on hers made her impact with the rocks enough to kill her … I killed her … its all my fault …”
Seth grasped her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.
"Jess, You couldn’t help her state of mind. It was an accident …"
Jessica shook her head. The tears came now, in deep, ragged sobs of grief and anger and horror. Seth gathered her up into his arms and held her. He could smell the intoxicating scent of her, he felt the soft yielding of her body next to his, and he allowed himself a selfish moment to wonder about the “what ifs” in his life. He held her more for him, he supposed, than for her. His heart hurt to see her in this much distress, his love for her would defend her till his last drop of blood.
Seth then realized how much that he loved Jessica. Of all the other women in his world, he loved Jess more than his own departed wife.
Jessica became limp in his arms. She wasn’t asleep, just emotionally drained, and when she looked up at him, it was with a rarely seen vulnerability. Bending slightly, he pulled her forward and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. She found comfort in his arms, and didn’t resist. She knew that it probably wasn’t right to do, but she needed to be held, if only for a moment. She saw the look of tenderness in his eyes that at first confused her, then she … knew. Her body moved upwards, so that they faced each other. She lifted her hand and placed her fingertips over his lips.
"No, don’t," she said softly.
Seth eased her back on to her bedding and tucked her in. Bending over, he kissed her lips softly, then stayed with her until she was fast asleep. He gave her a second kiss, then heard a polite soft cough behind him. He turned and saw Mort with a paper in his hands.
"Selka Dorrity was dead before she hit the rocks, from a bullet to the spine. She grabbed on to Jess, and they both went over. We found that government auditor, Ronald Percy, too, in the cafeteria freezer. He’d been stabbed, then stashed behind some packages of T-bone, along with the meat cleaver that killed him."
“So Jess was right about the hand.”
Mort nodded. “Yup. It was in that last photo that Selka had taken of all that expensive food, the one where Mrs. F thought she saw a hand just on the edge of the frame. The flash illuminated it just right. There’s no doubt. Jessica didn’t cause Selka’s death, but Selka did save Jessica’s life. Anyhow, we’ll know more after the autopsy, but we’ve a fair idea who the real culprit is. I’ll let myself out.”
Seth nodded. After Mort left, he kicked off his shoes, got the spare cover and lay next to Jessica, pulling her in to rest her head on his chest. He blew out the candle and snuggled close to her. For a moment he knew what it would be like to be with her every night. He closed his eyes, and kissed the top of her head before drifting off to sleep.
The next morning Jessica woke in a man’s arms, in her own bedroom. The curtains were pulled, and for a moment she felt more at peace than she had known in years. She looked up and saw it was Seth. His face was scraggily. There was just a moment, then he woke and looked down at her.
"Mort stopped by,” he said. “A bullet killed Selka, not you."
Jessica closed her eyes. "If I would have believed her in the beginning…"
Seth rolled over on top of her, pinning her to the bed, and said fiercely, "Nothing would have changed. The events would still have happened, she would still have died! Dearest, you’re not to blame for what happened. Do you understand? You’re not alone Jess, you don’t have to carry this alone … I love you."
Jessica flushed at the intimate position of their bodies. Seth realized the provocative position, and lowered his mouth to kiss her deeply. He got off the bed, and without a word carried the tray down to the kitchen.
Jessica was stunned. She did have feelings for Seth, feelings that if she was younger would have confused her. But she wasn’t young, and Seth was a dear friend and confidante. But waking up in his arms – she had to admit that was something she had missed for years after Frank’s death. She swung her feet out from the covers and out of bed and was about to stand up when Seth re-entered the room and scolded her.
"Not by yourself, young lady. You had a bad fall last night, and I don’t want you to fall again."
Jessica looked down at her nightdress, then back up to Seth. "It wasn’t a dream, Selka is dead. And I ..."
It was Seth’s turn to place his fingertips over her lips.
"You and she fell, after she was shot. Don’t think about it, let Mort handle it. He’s earning his pay.”
Seth tucked her back in bed and let her know he would be right back. He found Mort pouring some cold tea into a mug. He looked grim.
Seth regarded him and asked calmly, "Was she really shot? Or are you protecting Jess?"
Mort took a sip of the cold tea and faced Seth, who could see the struggle on his face.
“Well, Doc …”