The Teaberry Strangler
Charleston is bustling with shoppers looking for antiques-and, of course, Theodosia Browning's delicious teas. But when the cobblestone alleys clear, Theodosia finds the map store owner strangled to death. Many wanted her shop-but enough to kill? Most alarming, however, is Detective Tidwell's theory: that the killer mistook her for Theodosia.
A back-alley crawl had certainly sounded like a tantalizing idea to Theodosia when she'd first conceived it.
A blue-black Charleston evening in early March. Candles flickering up and down the narrow cobblestone alleys that snaked behind Church Street's charming shops. And shopkeepers in historic costumes throwing open their back doors to invite visitors in for tea, Charleston cookies, steaming mugs of crab chowder, and special prices on antiques, oil paintings, giftware, sweetgrass baskets, and leather-bound books.
And, as far as Theodosia Browning was concerned, entrepreneur and historic district booster that she was, the event had been a rousing success.
Hordes of folks, locals as well as tourists, had thronged the back alley, dashing from shop to charming shop. And a whole lot of them had dropped into her tea shop, too. She'd doled out more fresh-brewed cups of Darjeeling, tea sandwiches, and miniature quiches than she could remember serving in a long time.
But now, as the back door of the Indigo Tea Shop snicked shut, Theodosia peered down the length of the alley and suddenly had second thoughts about venturing out alone.
For one thing, the hour was late. Almost ten o'clock. And where visitors had swarmed up and down her alley some forty-five minutes ago, now there didn't seem to be any foot traffic at all.
Spooky, Theodosia thought to herself, as palm trees thrashed in the cool wind and dim, yellow gaslights glowed faintly in the mist. She wondered, just for an instant, if she shouldn't run upstairs and snap a leash on Earl Grey. Let her frisky guard dog Dalbrador prance along beside her. Or perhaps she should pop her head back into the warm, fragrant tea shop and ask Drayton, her master brewer and right-hand man, to accompany her.
"Silly," Theodosia murmured. "I'm only going a few doors down."
Pulling an old-fashioned cloak around her shoulders, the cloak that had served as her costume this evening, Theodosia gathered up her basket of tea and scones and set off down the alley. She was headed for the Antiquarian Map Shop, just down Church Street. The owner, Daria Shand, was a dear friend and probably in need of a little sustenance by now.
Theodosia felt the first drops of rain hit her shoulders and immediately thought, Frizzies. With masses of curly auburn hair to contend with, Theodosia sometimes projected the aura of a Renaissance woman captured in portrait by Raphael or even Botticelli. Smooth peaches-and-cream complexion, intense blue eyes, and the calm, often slightly bemused look of a self-sufficient woman in her mid-thirties. A woman who possessed a fair amount of life experience, but still looked forward to a wide-open future.
Flipping her hood up, resigning herself to the steady rain, Theodosia picked her way carefully along wet cobblestones. The squall that had been threatening for days had finally blown in from the Atlantic. Thank goodness it had held off this long.
She was passing the Cabbage Patch gift shop when a gust of wind flipped her cape up and threatened to send her airborne like the Flying Nun.
Theodosia fought the elements for a few moments, feeling like an umbrella turned inside out, then finally got her cape and basket righted. Glancing up as rain spat harder, she suddenly stared down the dim alley and beheld a bizarre scenario.
Theodosia's first, fleeting impression was of two people locked in a lover's embrace. Three seconds later she realized a nasty struggle was taking place.
A struggle? Really? Or were her eyes playing tricks on her?
With rain streaming in her eyes, the two figures appeared more like ethereal blue-black shadows, dancing and twisting in some grotesque embrace. But as their dance turned even more macabre, one figure grasped the other by the neck, forcing the other to drop to its knees.
A sharp burst of lightning lent bizarre special effects, leaching color from the landscape and giving the floundering figures the appearance of a slow-moving film negative.
"Stop!" Theodosia yelled. "Don't…"
Her plaintive cry was drowned out by a sharp crack of thunder that rattled nearby windows then continued to grumble ominously.
One of the figures was completely down on the ground now, unmoving, while the other bent over it, flailing like mad. Then, as if suddenly cognizant of a witness, the figure straightened up and gazed down the alley at Theodosia.
Theodosia's heart played a timpani beat in her chest as she sensed anger and rage, and she feared this person might turn on her. Instead, the figure spun and darted off into the pounding rain.
Dropping her basket, Theodosia sprinted for the downed figure.
Panic triggered by recognition shot through her like another bolt of lightning. It was her friend Daria Shand! But not the tall, reddish-blond beauty she knew and loved. This Daria's face was a grotesque mask of purple, her eyes half open and pupils staring into nowhere. And seemingly not breathing!
What to do? Call 911 or chase after the assailant?
Calling 911 won out, of course. And as Theodosia knelt in the alley, pummeled by wind and rain, clutching her cell phone, pounding frantically on Daria's chest, trying to recall her long-ago CPR training, a wave of helplessness washed over her.
Was there nothing she could do? But Daria still hadn't drawn a single, strangled gasp, and the words crime scene were swirling sickly in Theodosia's brain.
Minutes later, two shrieking squad cars, red-and-blue light bars pulsing, rocked to a stop in the alley. They were followed by a boxy orange-and-white ambulance.
"Help her!" Theodosia screamed, though she feared Daria was beyond help. Probably, she was in her Creator's hands now. Theodosia was caught in a swirl of activity then. EMTs working over Daria, more police officers arriving to cordon off the area, an officer firing questions at her, taking notes, trying to get a firsthand account.
At hearing all the commotion, Drayton and Haley came running down the alley from the Indigo Tea Shop, fear and concern etched on their faces.
And a familiar burgundy Crown Victoria slid to a stop in the alley.
"Tidwell," Theodosia murmured when she caught sight of the car.
Detective Burt Tidwell, overweight, articulate, and perpetually suspicious, headed the Robbery-Homicide Division of the Charleston PD. He was prickly rather than gracious and routinely brusque with everyone who got in his way. Though his suit coats rarely buttoned over a stomach that sometimes resembled an errant weather balloon and he could sometimes look the buffoon, Tidwell was as predatory as they came. Smart, canny, a dogged investigator.
Pulling himself from his car, Tidwell donned an enormous black rain slicker and lumbered toward the victim, who still lay in the exact spot she'd fallen. At that same moment, the back door of the Antiquarian Map Shop burst open, and a bearded man in a blue-and-white-checkered shirt suddenly cried, "Daria! Is that Daria? What happened?"
"Who are you?" Tidwell asked in his big cat growl.
"Her boyfriend, Joe Don. Let me through. Let me see her!"
Tidwell raised a hand, and two uniformed officers immediately barred the way.
"Later," Tidwell told him. "Questions first."
"That's not right," Theodosia said, speaking up. "He's her boyfriend. He has a right…" She stared at Tidwell, anger and grief on her face, thinking he looked for all the world like a bloated vampire in his dark, shiny rain slicker.
"And you are here, why?" Tidwell asked her in a clipped voice.
"She discovered the victim," one of the officers told Tidwell.
"And only doors down from your little tea shop," said Tidwell, turning his unblinking gaze upon Theodosia. "How very convenient."
"Be serious!" snapped Theodosia. "She was my friend. A good friend!"
"My sincere apology," said Tidwell, though he didn't sound one bit sincere. Or apologetic.
Theodosia shook off Tidwell's insensitivity and took a step closer to where Daria still lay. "It just doesn't make sense," she mourned. "Why would someone want to kill Daria?"
Tidwell leaned in and peered at the lifeless body that lay sprawled like a rag doll cast aside. And in a flat, almost impersonal tone, murmured, "Maybe they thought it was you."
"I simply loathe Tidwell's suggestion of mistaken identity," sputtered an outraged Drayton. "Why on earth would someone want to kill Theodosia? The notion's utterly preposterous!"
"Calm down," cautioned Haley, as she rubbed a silver teaspoon against her white chef's smock, polishing it to a lustrous patina. "That was just Tidwell running his yap again. Trying to be the hotshot homicide detective."
"Which he is," said Theodosia. She was putting the finishing touches on an arrangement of tulips, lilies, and orchids in a tall, straight-sided glass vase that had been wrapped with a piece of white birch bark and then a snippet of raffia. The effect was artful and pretty, but did nothing to alleviate the sadness she was feeling.
It was just before nine on Tuesday morning at the Indigo Tea Shop, and Theodosia, Drayton, and Haley were setting up for the day. Although they were all doing their darndest to pretend it was another normal day, they all knew in their hearts it was not. One of their own, a fellow shopkeeper and friend, had been brutally murdered. So that nasty reality hung heavy over their heads like a dark shroud.
"I can't fathom what the killer's motive might have been," said Drayton. Setting a pink Royal Doulton teacup onto its saucer with a gentle clink, he pinched the tiny handle between his fingers and arranged it just so.
"Passion," said Haley, pulling a pack of matches from the pocket of her chef's jacket and lighting one of the tea lights. "It was probably a crime of passion. That's what they said in the newspaper article."
"But passion can also translate as rage, obsession, or even lunacy," said Drayton. He straightened up and gazed solemnly about with hooded gray eyes. A stickler for perfection, Drayton always dressed with great care. Today he sported a classic Harris tweed jacket with trademark bow tie, which made him look aristocratic in bearing and every inch the southern gentleman he was.
"Maybe there's a serial killer loose in Charleston," speculated Haley. She pushed a hank of long blond hair behind her ear and stared at Drayton with guileless blue eyes.
"Don't even think such a terrible thing," Drayton admonished her. He turned toward Theodosia, who was now seated at the small table by the fireplace, checking her reservation book. "Our dear Haley has quite the runaway imagination. Chalk it up to youth, I suppose."
"Maybe so," said Theodosia, glancing up. "But Haley's probably just being realistic."
Drayton pursed his lips and let his tortoiseshell half-glasses slide down his aquiline nose. "Excuse me, you're implying you and I are idealistic?"
Theodosia managed a weak smile. "Most of the time we are." She gazed around, studying the cozy interior of the tea shop. "We work in an environment where people flock to us for good conversation, excellent food, and a refined atmosphere."
"And that's exactly what we deliver," said Drayton, a touch of pride in his voice. "There isn't a lovelier, cozier tea shop in the entire city."
"In the state," added Haley.
"And we serve jasmine, Darjeeling, and Earl Grey tea, just to name a few," said Theodosia. "And Haley's prodigious baking skills turn out the most marvelous sweet potato scones, cranberry muffins, and banana bread you'd ever want to eat." She smiled. "And between our tea and baked goods, the atmosphere is so deliciously fragrant it's like a dose of aromatherapy for your soul."
"Hmm," said Drayton, frowning slightly. "I suppose I see where you're going with this. We do exist in a slightly rarefied atmosphere. You might even say the entire historic district's that way. Antiques, gorgeous mansions, cobblestone streets bountifully lined with live oak trees."
"You wouldn't want the Indigo Tea Shop to change, would you?" asked Haley. "Dump our old-fashioned ways and switch our name to Tea Biddy's or something equally silly so we can hustle customers in and out with to-go type food?"
"Goodness, no," said Theodosia. "I don't ever want to change a thing. All I'm saying is we should probably be a little more cognizant of what's going on. Realize that even our own little slice of Charleston can be a dangerous place."
Drayton's brows beetled together. "Is the back door locked?"
Haley shrugged. "Dunno."
"You see?" said Theodosia. "That's what I'm talking about. Vigilance should be our new watchword."
"Right," said Haley, peering at Theodosia. "But you're the one who's always on top of things. You're our watchdog, so to speak."
"She's right," said Drayton. He hesitated slightly. "Case in point, you were able to give the police a fairly good account of last night."
"But not as much as was reported in today's Post and Courier," said Haley. "They made it sound like you could identify the killer."
"Which I can't," said Theodosia.
"That might present an awkward problem," suggested Drayton. "If some maniac out there thinks you can."
Haley wrinkled her nose and fixed Theodosia with a serious gaze. "Have you… um… been able to remember anything more? I know you told the officers and Detective Tidwell about everything you saw. But have you come up with anything else?"
"Like a clue?" asked Drayton, edging closer to Theodosia. "You've got a pretty solid record when it comes to crime solving." He ducked his head, having just uttered the words Theodosia probably didn't want to hear.
"I saw the struggle," said Theodosia, nodding. "Although at first I thought it was Daria with her boyfriend. Being… I don't know… romantic, I suppose."
"But it was someone else," said Haley, in an ominous tone. "So… what else can you recall?"
Theodosia closed her eyes and tilted her head to one side. Tried to think back to last night. Conjure up the memory of darkness and rain-spattered cobblestones and two shadowy blue-and-black figures locked in a life-and-death struggle. An image that bordered on film noir. And what else? She wondered. What else did I see or hear or think? Maybe… She wracked her brain, trying to dredge up something, anything. Maybe a faint minty fragrance?
"Mint?" came Theodosia's whispered reply.
"Mint?" said Drayton, sounding dubious. "Seriously?"
Theodosia slowly opened her eyes, as if returning from a hypnotic trance. "I had the strangest feeling that's what I smelled last night. The closer I got to Daria."
"Pretty strange," admitted Haley.
"Maybe," proposed Drayton, "there's a simple explanation."
"Like what?" asked Haley.
"A mint plant growing nearby," said Drayton. "After all, this entire area's overrun with flora and fauna. There's a reason Charleston's backyard gardens are so famously intriguing."
"Probably that's it," agreed Theodosia, exhaling slowly.
"Should we be doing something for Daria?" asked Haley. She seemed quiet and thoughtful now.
"Maybe send flowers to Daria's mother," said Theodosia.
"Don't you think we should wait until we know funeral details?" asked Drayton, always a stickler for proper etiquette.
"No, let's go ahead and do it right away," said Theodosia. "Daria's mother is a dear friend of Aunt Libby, so…" Her voice trailed off. Aunt Libby was Theodosia's only remaining living relative. A tiny, dynamic woman who lived at Cane Ridge Plantation out by Horlbeck Creek. The plantation where Theodosia's father had grown up, where her parents had been married. Now Aunt Libby watched over the low, flat fields that stretched to meet piney forests and cared for her myriad flocks of birds.
One of Theodosia's fondest memories was watching Aunt Libby tote heaping buckets of thistle, black oil seed, and cracklings down to the lake for all the migratory waterfowl that showed up. Of course, once they discovered what a fat deal they'd lucked into, they stayed on like a pack of mooching, shirttail relatives. But Aunt Libby adored them all. Her dear creatures, as she called them.
"I'll order the flowers from Floradora," said Haley. "Theo, you just stay put and compose your thoughts. I assume Detective Tidwell will be dropping by soon. He said he would, anyway."
"He'll be here," said Theodosia, though she wasn't sure what more she could offer Tidwell by way of details or faint impressions. She'd racked her brain all night for another nugget of information to feed him but had come up dry.
"Changing the subject," said Drayton, pulling a tin of Assam golden tips tea off the display shelves of an antique highboy fashioned from native cypress. "How are your move-in plans shaping up? You're charging ahead, I assume?"
A few months ago, Theodosia had been fortunate enough to come into a windfall of money. And had decided to move from her apartment above the Indigo Tea Shop to an adorable little English cottage a few blocks away, a former carriage house that bore the name Hazelhurst. A down payment had been made, agreements spelled out in writing, but she still didn't have a specified closing date or move-in date from the churlish owner.
"There are a few problems." Theodosia sighed.
"Always are," said Drayton. "No real estate transaction ever goes smoothly."
"Apparently," said Theodosia, "the wiring's not up to code. Which is why the lights keep flickering and the housing inspector has requested the sellers to replace a buried cable. I suppose I'll have to call Maggie and have her run interference." Maggie Twining was Theodosia's Realtor.
"Maybe your cottage is haunted," said Haley as she crossed the tea room floor, a pot of Darjeeling tea in one hand, a plate of fresh-baked cinnamon scones in the other. "That would sure explain the flickering lights. And let's face it, your place wouldn't be the first home in Charleston to have ghosts and supernatural beings wandering around."
"Charleston is supposedly one of the most haunted cities in America," agreed Drayton. "Although I can't say I'm a true believer in that particular spirit world."
Knock, knock, knock!
"Oh!" said Haley, suddenly startled.
"It's the door," said Drayton.
"Tidwell," said Theodosia, dreading his visit.
Burt Tidwell, looking bearish and slightly smug, sailed across the floor, dodging tables like a chubby matador, and plopped himself down at the table alongside Theodosia. Then his head swiveled toward Haley, his nose twitched eagerly, and his beady eyes fairly gleamed. "Miss Haley," he asked, "are those items, perchance, fresh-baked?"
So, of course, Drayton laid out a plate, teacup, and silverware for Detective Tidwell. While Haley ran back and grabbed tiny silver dishes filled with Devonshire cream and strawberry preserves.
"A feast," declared Tidwell, tucking into the scones and preserves while Theodosia poured him a steaming cup of Darjeeling.
"I'm glad you have an appetite," Theodosia remarked in a droll voice. She herself did not. Fresh in her mind's eye was the heartbreaking image of Daria's crumpled, lifeless body. Tragic, she thought. Simply tragic.
"I count on your lovely tea and baked goods to fortify my body as well as my spirit," responded Tidwell. "Preparation for all the difficult work ahead."
"And what is the work ahead, if I might ask?" said Theodosia.
"First course of action," said Tidwell, poised with a tiny butter knife in his big paw, "is the homicide last night. Determine motive."
"How's that coming so far?" asked Theodosia.
"A number of interesting ideas are spinning in my head," said Tidwell. "You don't know this… of course, you wouldn't… but quite a nasty struggle had gone on inside the Antiquarian Map Shop."
"Really?" said Theodosia, grimacing. She hated to think of poor Daria, bravely fighting off her attacker, while maps were flung everywhere and files and bookshelves overturned in the process.
"Place is a huge mess," said Tidwell, munching away. "Maps strewn all over the place. Old family records, too."
Theodosia nodded. Besides selling antique maps, Daria had amassed a fine collection of historic documents, old letters, photographs, and family records.
"Some of the documents had been ripped to shreds," said Tidwell. "Like someone had gone utterly berserk!"
"A maniac," Theodosia said in a low, hoarse voice. Of course, it had been a maniac. He'd strangled Daria, hadn't he?
Tidwell reached for a second cinnamon scone.
"Why would someone want to rip up maps?" Theodosia asked.
"No idea," said Tidwell, popping a bite into his mouth and chewing appreciatively.
"But you will get a handle on this, right?" Theodosia sounded more than a little hopeful. After all, Daria had been a good friend. And her murder had occurred dangerously close to Indigo Tea Shop turf. What Theodosia considered her turf.
"Solving last night's homicide is a foregone conclusion, Miss Browning," Tidwell assured her. "My detectives are working numerous angles even as we speak." In Tidwell's former life, he'd been an SPIC, a special agent in charge, with the FBI. Old habits died hard with Tidwell, and he still subscribed to the get-your-man-or-else dictum.
"When do you think you'll have something?" asked Theodosia. She was itching to hear about suspects and suppositions.
"Soon as I get a few questions answered," replied Tidwell. His bright eyes bored into her.
"I don't know what else to tell you," said Theodosia. "I pretty much told you everything I could think of last night. I only played a small part in last night's tragedy."
"Tell me what you know about Jason Pritchard," said Tidwell.
Theodosia thought for a few moments. "He always struck me as a nice enough fellow." She didn't know Pritchard well, since Daria had only hired Jason a few months ago. "Daria had been running her shop, building her map and document collection, pretty much doing it all herself," continued Theodosia. "Then she hired Jason and his presence seemed to allow a certain degree of breathing room for Daria." She glanced down at the table, rubbed an index finger over one of the deep scratches. "Gave her the luxury of dropping by here for lunch, taking days off, that sort of thing."
Tidwell gave a slight nod and his jowls sloshed from side to side. "So you knew this fellow Pritchard?"
"Not so much. Daria once told me he had a fairly good eye. I know for a fact that he was running all over the county, hitting auctions, digging through estate sales, to find various documents for the shop. Building the inventory, I guess you'd call it."
"And Pritchard wasn't present last night," said Tidwell.
"When you talked to the boyfriend… Joe Don Hunter?"
Tidwell gave a quick tilt of his head.
"Joe Don seemed to say that Daria had already sent Jason home for the evening," said Theodosia. "That she'd been ready to close up shop."
"So the story goes," said Tidwell.
"Do you know… where was the boyfriend when Daria was attacked?"
"Over at the Chowder Hound, getting take-out."
"And you know that for sure?" asked Theodosia.
"He dropped his order directly on my Thom McAn loafers when I told him how Daria was killed," said Tidwell. "Smelled like crab chowder to me."
"Hmm," said Theodosia.
"But enough questions for now," said Tidwell. His chubby hands gripped the table, ready to push himself out of the groaning captain's chair he occupied, which, luckily for everyone, had been constructed of sturdy Carolina pine.
"Actually," said Theodosia, "I have a few questions."
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