An Unthymely Death and Other Garden Mysteries: A Treasury of Stories, Herbal Lore, Recipes and Crafts (China Bayles Mystery)

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9780425190029: An Unthymely Death and Other Garden Mysteries: A Treasury of Stories, Herbal Lore, Recipes and Crafts (China Bayles Mystery)

Now readers can join China Bayles in ten puzzling cases—and get a taste of her world. This delightful collection features loads of wonderful herbal tidbits on everything from rosemary to feverfew to catnip; recipes for such to-die-for dishes as a Deadly Chocolate Valentine, Ruby's Applesauce Mint Bread, China's Five-Spice Chicken and Veggie Stir-Fry, and McQuaid's Tex Mex-and a host of creative ideas for garden and home. It's a one-of-a-kind collection featuring a one-of-a-kind sleuth—who's worth spending some "quality thyme" with!

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About the Author:

Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Some of her recent titles include Widow’s Tears, Cat’s Claw, The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose, and The Tale of Castle Cottage. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige, which includes such titles as Death at Glamis Castle and Death at Whitechapel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

AN UNTHYMELY DEATH

By Susan Wittig Albert

Copyright © 2003 by Susan Wittig Albert

Thyme heals all wounds.

Anonymous

Hey, China, what’s that you’re planting?” Ruby Wilcox asked.

I patted the dirt firmly around the base of the plant and straightened up. “It’s ginkgo,” I said.

Ruby Wilcox is my best friend and partner. Her Crystal Cave, the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs, Texas, is in the same century-old stone building that houses my herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, and our jointly owned tearoom, Thyme for Tea. The building is surrounded with herb gardens, and at this moment, I was working in the garden out front.

Thyme and Seasons and its herb gardens are a far cry from the Houston law office where I used to work as a criminal defense attorney. Leaving the law, moving to a small town, and opening my own business these are the best things I’ve ever done for myself (second only to marrying Mike McQuaid, that is). And while some people might find small-town life limited or low on thrills and excitement, that hasn’t been a problem for me. Between the shop, my family, and my friends, I have just about all the excitement I can handle. And if I want to kick up my heels in the big city, it takes less than an hour to drive from Pecan Springs to either Austin or San Antonio. Altogether, it’s a nice arrangement.

Ruby bent over to peer doubtfully at the plant. “That dinky little twig is ginkgo? It’s got a heck of a lot of growing to do. The last ginkgo I saw was a tree. A big tree.” She looked up. “Taller than this building.”

“Give it time,” I said with a grin, and picked up my shovel. “Like about five hundred years. I started this little guy from a cutting, and it’s got some growing to do.” The oldest surviving tree on earth, ginkgo was once described by Charles Darwin as a “living fossil,” because so many of its primitive botanical features are still intact. Extracts made from its leaves have been used for over five thousand years to improve blood circulation, treat asthma and bronchitis, and enhance memory. And even if it were entirely useless, I would still enjoy the dappled shade created by its fan-shaped green leaves. While this little fellow begins stretching up to his full height, I’m going to put up a sign letting people know that his ancestors were already ancient when humans were just beginning to rub sticks together.

From the back door of the shop, my helper, Laurel Riley, waved at me. “You’re wanted on the phone, China,” she called. “It’s Hannah Bucher.”

“Oh, good,” I said, shouldering my shovel and heading for the shop, Ruby tagging along behind. Hannah is a seventy-something herb gardener who lives in Cedar Crossing, not far away. She specializes in thyme, growing and selling dozens of different varieties of this beautiful herb. She had promised to give me some plants of a new cultivar of lemon thyme, so I could try it in my garden. I’d been waiting impatiently for her call.

But Hannah hadn’t phoned to talk about herbs. Instead, she’d called to ask me to come to Cedar Crossing to see her, and something in her voice prompted me to ask why.

“It’s an urgent personal matter,” she said. She lowered her voice, as if she were afraid she might be overheard. “I hate to say it, China, but I’m afraid someone is ” She stopped, and then in a lighter, brighter voice, went on: “I do hope you’ll be able to come and get those lemon thyme plants soon. I’ve been saving them for you. When can you come?”

I glanced at the calendar. McQuaid and Brian my husband and our thirteen-year-old were going to Houston the next weekend to catch an Astros game. “How about Sunday?” I asked. Ruby and I had been meaning to visit our friends Barbara Thatcher and Ramona Pierce, who also live in Cedar Crossing.

“Sunday would be fine.” Hannah’s voice became low and urgent again. “Unless you can come sooner. And please bring Ruby. I need to talk to both of you.”

Frowning, I hung up and went to the door of the Crystal Cave. As usual, Ruby was burning her own handcrafted herbal incense, which creates a perfect backdrop for the tarot cards, rune stones, crystals, and books on astrology and the occult that she sells.

“Want to drive over to Cedar Crossing on Sunday?” I asked.

Ruby pushed a curl of henna-red hair out of her eyes and looked up from the stack of books she was shelving. “Your plants are ready?”

“Yes, but that isn’t why Hannah called. She wants to talk to us. It sounds like something’s wrong.”

Ruby gave me a curious look. “What do you suppose is going on?”

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling troubled. “I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.”

But Hannah never got a chance to tell us what was bothering her. On Friday, I learned that she was dead.

“A heart attack?” Ruby asked, her eyes widening when I told her.

“That’s what the newspaper says.” I handed her the obituary that Ramona Pierce had clipped out of the Cedar Crossing Tattler and faxed to me. “Apparently, she died the day after we talked. She’s being buried tomorrow.”

“What a shame,” Ruby said sadly. “Hannah was such a lovely, vibrant woman. I had no idea she had heart trouble.”

“Neither had I.” I frowned, thinking about the tone of Hannah’s voice when she had said that she needed to talk to us, urgently. “What would you think about going to Cedar Crossing anyway? I really would like to have those plants Hannah was saving for me.”

“And I’d like to see Ramona and Barbara,” Ruby said in a decided tone. “Let’s do it.”

Cedar Crossing is a pretty village, built on the bank of the Guadalupe River. Its chief claim to fame is a simple white-painted church with a delicate steeple, built by the German settlers who established the town 150 years ago. Hannah’s house and gardens were just down the road from the church. On Sunday afternoon, Ruby and I drove slowly past, admiring the sprays of bright foliage that spilled over the stone wall. The sunny yellow blooms of St. John’s wort were brilliant against the feathery purple leaves of a tall bronze fennel, and golden-leaved feverfew splashed at the foot of a sprawling gray-blue Russian sage.

When I saw a woman pushing a wheelbarrow down the path, I pulled over and stopped. I studied her for a moment, then turned to Ruby. “I’d like to talk to her,” I said. “But let’s pretend we don’t know anything about Hannah’s death.”

Ruby gave me a curious look. “Why would we do that?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Just a hunch, I guess.”

Ruby grinned. She is the kind of person who always trusts a hunch. “Go for it,” she said. “Get that right brain in gear.”

The woman behind the wheelbarrow was tanned and athletic-looking, with dark brown hair twisted into a loose, thick braid down her back. She wore a red bandana headband, a sweatshirt and jeans, and heavy garden gloves. Her face was stern and unsmiling.

“Hi,” I said cheerfully. “I’m China Bayles, and this is Ruby Wilcox.”

The woman frowned. “China Bayles. Aren’t you the person who wanted some of Hannah’s lemon thyme?”

“That’s me. Hannah said we could pick up the plants anytime.” I shaded my eyes with my hands and looked around. “Is she here?”

“Hannah’s dead.” The woman pressed her lips tightly together. “She died early Wednesday morning.”

Ruby’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, as if this were the first she’d heard of it. “An accident?”

“They say it was a heart attack.” The woman’s voice was taut, and she wasn’t looking at us. “The funeral was yesterday.” She nodded in the direction of the church. “She’s buried in the churchyard.”

“I am so sorry,” I said quietly. “Hannah was a lovely person.” I looked around the garden, which must have covered at least two acres. The fragrance of honeysuckle and roses surrounded us. “It’s so sad to think that she won’t be here to take care of this beautiful garden. I hope the next person who owns it will love it as much as she did.”

The woman’s eyes flashed an enigmatic message. “I’ll take care of it,” she said roughly. “I promised Hannah I would.”

“Managing a garden this size is a big job,” I said. “It takes a lot of skill and knowledge. You really have to love it.”

“That’s why Hannah did what she did,” the woman said. She turned toward the house and a look of something like hatred crossed her face. ``And no matter what they say,” she burst out passionately, “she wanted me to have it after she died.”

“Who do you suppose ‘they’ are?” Ruby whispered to me as the woman strode away, pushing her wheelbarrow. “And who is she?”

“I have no idea,” I said. I glanced toward the house. Another woman, short and plump and wearing a blue apron, was standing on the back porch, under the golden tangle of hops vines that covered the roof. At one time, Hannah had brewed her own beer, and had even given lectures on the subject.

The woman saw us and beckoned. “Let’s talk to her,” I said to Ruby. “Maybe she knows what’s going on.”

“You must be China and Ruby,” the woman said as we approached the porch. “Aunt Hannah told me you might be here.” She bit her lip. “I suppose you know that she died several days ago.”

The kitchen was almost as pretty as the garden, with a cheerful red-checked cloth on the table and windowsills filled with pots of scented geranium. The woman introduced herself as Luella Mitchell, Hannah’s niece. As we sat at the table and sipped glasses of iced tea, she told us about the circumstances of Hannah’s death.

“It was very sudden,” she said. Her round face was sad. “And quite unexpected. I’ve lived with my aunt for the past three years and even helped take care of her accounts, and I never even suspected that she had a bad heart.” She sat down at the kitchen table and pulled a tissue out of her apron pocket to wipe her eyes. “It’s so hard to accept.”

I leaned forward. “Hannah told me that she wanted to talk to me about an urgent matter. She sounded terribly troubled. Do you know what was bothering her?”

Luella’s face tightened. “I certainly do,” she said. “She was afraid.”

“Afraid?” Ruby put down her glass.

“Of that woman you were talking to, out there in the garden. Jessica Powell, her name is.” Luella shook her head sadly. “Jessica killed somebody once, you know. She spent a long time in jail.”

”She did?” Ruby breathed.

Luella nodded soberly. “Aunt Hannah realized that she’d made a dangerous mistake, giving Jessica a job and letting her live in the garage apartment. And worse, putting her into her will. The woman has a green thumb, there’s no doubt about that. But she moved in and just took over.” She shook her head. “Why, she pushed poor Aunt Hannah right out of her own garden!”

“It’s true, then, that Jessica Powell will inherit this place?” I asked, remembering what the woman had said.

Luella’s face was set. “Aunt Hannah called you, China, because she wanted some legal advice. She’d finally got up the courage to get rid of Jessica. But she died before she could change her will, so I guess ”

She was interrupted by a knock on the screen door. We turned to see two uniformed police officers standing on the porch.

“We’re looking for Miz Mitchell,” one of them said through the screen. “Hannah Bucher’s niece.”

“That’s me.” Luella stood, her face suddenly apprehensive. “Is there something the matter?”

“Afraid so, ma’am.” The officer held out a paper. “We have a warrant to search the residence of Jessica Powell.”

“My apartment?” Jessica Powell asked angrily. She had suddenly materialized beside the porch. “What are you looking for?”

“Please show us your living quarters, Miz Powell,” the officer said without answering her question. The two men followed her through the garden, in the direction of the two-story garage.

“Why have they come?” Luella asked in a bewildered voice. “What are they looking for?”

“Evidence,” I said. “They couldn’t have gotten a warrant unless they had probable cause to suspect that Jessica Powell had committed a crime.”

Ruby’s eyes were large. “Murder?” she whispered.

“No, no!” Luella exclaimed. “That’s wrong! Aunt Hannah had a heart attack!”

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” I said grimly.

Fifteen minutes later the officers were back. Jessica Powell was with them, stony-faced and silent and handcuffed.

“But I don’t understand!” Luella exclaimed. “Why are you arresting her? What’s she done?”

One officer gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, Miz Mitchell, but your aunt didn’t die of natural causes. The autopsy report you requested indicates that she was poisoned.”

“Poisoned!” Luella whispered. “But...but how? What kind of poison?”

The other deputy held up a plastic evidence bag. “Nicotine,” he said. In the bag was a can of smoking tobacco.

“Nicotine poisoning?” Ramona Pierce asked blankly. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“I have,” Barbara Thatcher said in a grim voice. “Wicked stuff. Terribly toxic.”

It was Sunday evening, and Ruby and I and our two hostesses were seated at the table in the dining room of Ramona and Barbara’s home, finishing a wonderful dinner of fresh garden vegetables and penne pasta with herbs one of Barbara’s specialty recipes. It was a pretty room, with a pair of French doors that opened out onto a patio bordered with rosemary, and the setting sun cast a golden light over Ramona’s garden. The two women had bought the house together the previous year. Barbara practices law in San Antonio, and Ramona has her own interior decorating business.I nodded, agreeing with Barbara. “Tobacco is toxic, all right. It’s one of our most problematic herbs.”

Ruby looked up from her plate. “You’re saying that tobacco is an herb?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a member of the nightshade family, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant and potatoes, too.” I forked up a few veggies to demonstrate. “Over the centuries, tobacco has been used to treat all kinds of ailments, including cancer. But it is most definitely toxic.”

Ramona frowned. “I know that cigarettes are bad news, but ”

“It’s not just cigarettes,” Barbara said. “When I was in the DA’s office, we prosecuted a case where the killer poisoned his victim with a nicotine-based pesticide.”

“Gardeners sometimes brew up their own pesticide by steeping cigarettes in water,” I said. “Some people have been accidentally poisoned just by getting it on their hands.”

Barbara looked at me curiously. “So the police, acting on a tip, searched Jessica Powell’s room?”

“And found the tobacco can,” Ruby said. “They think she made a nicotine concentrate and somehow administered it to Hannah. In her coffee, maybe, or in some strong-tasting food, like chili.”

“But why?” Ramona asked, frowning. “Everyone liked Hannah. We’ll all miss her.”

“Because Jessica was the beneficiary of her will,” I said.

“And Hannah had become afraid of her and was planning to change it,” Ruby explained. “Jessica must have realized what Hannah had in mind, and decided to take action.”

Barbara raised her eyebrows. “Hannah was planning to alter her will?”

“That’s why she called China,” Ruby explained. “According to Luella Mitchell, her...

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