Watching my friend Lillian Hyde make flourless chocolate torte for a party this evening was a delight. The bakery was silent except for the sound of breaking eggs. Her hands moved fluidly, quietly, gently. As I watched her, my mind drifted to thoughts of recent events. My life became entangled in a bizarre and yet totally fascinating situation.
Because I was Lillian Hyde's friend and reporter for the Linoak County Gazette, I will not see tonight's events as just another chapter in her long and complex story. Because of Lillian's indomitable spirit, despite a difficult heart problem, the story was inspiring. Lilli has a problem called Long QT Syndrome. All I know about the condition is that her heart rhythm changes. (She calls it going "wobbly") She needs a cardiac alert dog and she needs to avoid stress and anxiety. The current course of events is troubling to her family and friends and not just because Lilli had a heart condition. This is why I was selected to hang out with Lilli as she prepared the last of gluten-free food for tonight's Masquerade of Flours.
The Masquerade of Flours was a bit of a play on words. Lilli, herself a baker, was engaged to Bob Schlagel owner/manager of Bob’s Best Bakery. While Bob's bakery used flour that contained gluten, Lillian's, Ginny's Cookie Jar, used only gluten-free flour. Thus the name Masquerade of Flours. The costumes would follow the theme of Lilli and Bob’s favorite movie “The Court Jester” a musical-comedy, Medieval romance. However, this party would have a twist. I don’t think calling it a twist of fate would be a stretch.
The name Masquerade of Flours has another meaning. The events of January of last year are difficult to describe. This story is difficult to believe, even for a journalist. Technically, this surreal tale began when Bob proposed to Lilli on Christmas Eve. In reality, it was Christmas day at midnight. Later that week, I interviewed Bob and Lillian for the Gazette's Lifestyle section. After the article was written, some very old memories surfaced - memories that everyone thought were buried for over a decade. Within a few days, I had received anonymous emails offering clues to the death of Lillian's first fianceé, Finn McCarthy, in an automobile accident. During the next couple of weeks, the local police and I followed up on leads. What came next was most curious! Lillian and I received “threatening” bouquets of flowers. It would have been funny if it wasn't so unsettling. It was necessary for us to consider who might be behind the threats, however veiled. Lillian and I came up with the idea for the masquerade party after receiving a black rose from our "floral friend" at a bridal show we were both attending. A Masquerade party may be a fun theme for an engagement party and a good way to "unmask" the person who threatened us. Thus, tonight’s Masquerade of Flours could just as easily be called Masquerade of Flowers.
Linoak County Gazette did not take kindly to one of its reporters being threatened. We therefore agreed to work with Deputy Axel Persson of the Linoak County Sheriff's Department. As necessary, we shared pertinent information with him and he with us.
Axel, who ran about the size of Mount Rushmore, was to be my date tonight assuring that I will be on hand for all the action as we sprang the trap on our “floral quarry”. We’ll make an amusing couple, I’m sure. I’m 5’0” exactly. Axel Persson is 6’3” of solid muscle. The blonde haired, blue eyed man of grit was also a proficient ballroom dancer. I, however, am not. He told me all I had to do was follow his lead. As if I really had a choice.
The first part of our plan to catch the “floral fiend” was set in motion some time ago. While investigating the threats, all those involved realized the person responsible was someone they knew or someone they saw every day. Everyone was asked to make a list of acquaintances they see frequently. Because Bushwick was a small village, a few names cross-checked. People who were on the lists received postal invitations and were identified by the cancelled postmarks on the invitations. Lillian's friend CeCe personally delivered all other invitations. In order to enter the party venue, you needed an invitation or to be someone's plus one. A security officer would note any invitations with cancellation marks. Even though the plan had many moving parts, the police believed it was the most likely option.
Axel informed me that the evening's security arrangements involve costumed officers from the state police and private security providers. Several would be masked and would not draw attention to themselves, while others would be at the doors to check the guest list. Guests were informed in their invitations that there would be a set program and time limit for the evening (Ostensibly due to Lillian's heart condition.) Once the program was complete there would be dancing. The attendees were not told that they would be politely asked to stay until the speakers and musical pieces were completed. Police believed they would have gathered enough evidence to arrest their person of interest within 30 minutes. Armed with this evidence, troopers and sheriff's deputies would make the arrest. No matter how solid a plan seems it could fail in a thousand different ways, of course.
I glanced at my watch. We would be late to the party if we didn't leave now. It was time to get into our costumes. My dress was simple yet authentic to the period, allowing me to mingle without tripping. There's a good reason why my mother didn't name me Grace.
“Lilli, it's time to go. Let’s get you home to change for the party,” I said.
“Yes, you’re right,” Lilli exclaimed!
Lilli and I drove to her home together. Lilli's cousin Rachel was there with Lilli's dog Ginger Pye. All of us would prepare for the engagement party at her home. The Costumes came from Salt City, about two hours away from Bushwick. Everything about them was perfect. As Rachel and I did her hair and makeup, Lillian seemed to lighten up a bit. We all looked the part of a Medieval maid.
CeCe, the regular dog sitter, was right on time. My Pomeranian, Gillespie, was being watched by my neighbor, Mrs. West. Both of our dogs were very important to Lilli and me. Ginger was Lillian's cardiac alert dog. Mr. Gillespie was my little companion, a great source of comfort to me.
As time drew near, Lillian became more anxious. Before getting her into my Mini Cooper, we asked her to take a few deep breaths. Rachel assured her that everything was in order. Her family and friends would be there to make sure the party was a success.
Lilli and I were greeted at the door by Bob and Axel. Axel wore hose, boots, and a rather ornate tunic (under which he carried his spare pistol). Bob was dressed as the "Black Fox" from the Court Jester film, wearing a green tunic, black hose, black boots, green hood and cape. I was pleasantly surprised by their costumes.
Standing next to Axel I looked like “Thumbelina” to his Giant “Blunderbore” except he was neither a blunderer, nor a bore. I’m afraid all the blundering would be on my part tonight. Dancing was not my strong suit. We went in first to wait for Bob and Lillian to be introduced.
A roar of applause echoed through the building as they entered. As Bob helped Lillian into her chair, the crowd quieted. My cameraman, Mark Devlin, and I decided to mingle with the crowd. Mark took numerous pictures. I made notes, rather absentmindedly, writing down names, what people were wearing, and the sumptuous food on offer.
Mark tapped my shoulder whispering, “Tracy I didn’t know Cardinal Richelieu was part of the movie?”
“He’s NOT,'' I replied.
There were a few odd costumes there, no doubt belonging to those who were not told of the exact theme of the party. However, the bright red frock, mask and cape stuck out a mile.
“Do you think…” Mark’s whisper became hoarse and trailed off.
“I don’t know but get as many pictures of that person as you can without drawing any attention to yourself,” I said.
In the midst of the closing addresses and music, I turned to look for Axel. I spied him near the gifts. A guy that size in a bright blue and gold tunic was hard to miss. He and Sheriff Reynolds were inspecting a red package left on the gift table. The top of the box was decorated with two large black orchids. As we knew the significance of flowers, it was easy for us to interpret their meaning. Death.
Mark moved to my left. He subtly motioned with the camera lense toward the corner of the room where the police were scanning the package. Taking pictures of that particular piece of technology did not seem like a good idea to me. I wrote on my notepad, "wait for them to finish with that gadget".
The string quartet began playing the last piece of the set program. The waitstaff appeared out of nowhere with a small torte for everyone in attendance. A waiter stopped in front of the man dressed as Cardinal Richelieu. He presented him with a beautiful little torte topped with powdered sugar. He nodded in thanks, but did not speak.
Lillian stepped forward to offer Bob the flourless chocolate torte she had made earlier that day just as a waiter placed the second one at her place setting. Everyone waited very quietly for the two to take a bite of their dessert. A symbolic ring was supposed to be hidden in each torte to represent their impending nuptials, according to the program. Without realizing it, each had bought the other a gold ring and hid it in the torte. As I looked around the room, I noticed that no one appeared to be dry-eyed. It was a beautiful gesture!
Bob said a few very sweet words about the rings. Just then Axel put his arm around my waist (something he’d never done before) to guide me across the room. Mark was hot on my heels. Just as we arrived on the same side of the room as the man dressed as Cardinal Richelieu, Bob nodded for everyone to partake of their torte.
"The cardinal" put his spoon into the small torte as Mark prepared his camera. A metallic clank was heard. From the remains of the torte, the man pulled a pair of handcuffs. Sheriff Reynolds approached the masked man from behind placing a clean pair of handcuffs on him. Axel removed the red mask to reveal Leo Berry. The room erupted in gasps at the revelation. Mark took pictures of the entire arrest. The shock of the arrest hit the room like a hurricane. Since he was 19, Berry had worked as a mailman in Bushwick. The betrayal on each face was almost too painful to watch.
Bob’s face turned red with anger, Lillian’s face turned white as she grabbed at her chest. In alarm I yanked at Axel’s arm. Lillian was in trouble. Axel was a medic for the Sheriff’s department and very fortunately he brought his pack into the hall with him. He grabbed me around the waist again this time lifting me off the ground. Then, like something out of “Beauty and the Beast” he swung me around, threw his pack over his shoulder and bounded across the room. In about three strides he was at the head table handing Bob a small oxygen tank and mask. Lilli’s cardiologist happened to be a guest at the affair; he wisely brought medicine with him just in case Lillian got a bit overwhelmed with the excitement of the party. (He had NO idea!) I almost needed a shot of that medicine myself!
Within a few minutes Lillian was back to a semi-normal color. She gave all of us a scare. True to form, however, she insisted that the party go on. Her cardiologist sat at the head table with Bob and Lillian’s families watching the guests dance to the beautiful music of the string quartet.
I got in a couple of dances with Axel before we both had to leave for the Sheriff’s office. Despite his size, Deputy Persson was incredibly nimble. He told me all I had to do was follow his lead. He made even this goose feel like a movie star. Apparently he started dancing to enhance agility on the football field and never stopped learning.
Before leaving for work, we said goodbye to Bob, Lillian, and their families. We both had paperwork to fill out, and I had to write my story so that it would be on the publisher's desk first thing the next morning. Axel walked me to my car.
“Hey Torchy, (his nickname for me, based on a character from an old movie series) I don’t suppose you’d like to have dinner with me sometime?” he asked sheepishly.
“Axel, ask me when you are wearing pants. It’s hard to take you seriously while you are wearing hose,” I laughed.
“So the tunic is okay,” he asked jokingly.
I rolled my eyes.
Axel and I arrived at the Sheriff's office at the same time. Upon entering the front door, we saw Leo Berry emerge from the cells wearing a blue jumpsuit and handcuffs. Mark was already taking pictures of the "perp walk".
“A captivating masquerade,” said Mark.
I nodded in assent. Then Axel went into the back of the building to change into his uniform. Meanwhile Mark and I approached Sheriff Reynolds.
I asked, "Can you tell us anything, Sheriff?"?
After asking for a lawyer, he made a single phone call. "Apart from that, he has nothing else to say," he replied.
“Nothing to say,” I exclaimed! "He nearly gave Lillian a heart attack and he had nothing to say!”
“Could you at least tell me what was inside that lovely red package," I asked?
"Yes, Miss Blane, I can tell you that because it won't make a difference in the charges against Leo. Upon opening the box, I found a perfectly folded origami bird.” The Sheriff said, "Black like a crow."
Mark murmured, "Here we go with more symbolism!"
“Again,” I replied.
With his costume in hand, Axel emerged from the locker room.
"I hear I'm being accused of entrapment," he said with amusement
“It's true.” Sheriff Reynolds replied, "You, me, Miss Blane, Bob, Lillian, and half of Bushwick."
“Well, good to know I’m in such excellent company,” Axel said with a smile
“Torchy, With all the excitement, I don't believe either of us got the chance to eat,” said Axel. I'm past my dinner break, so I'd like to buy you a bagel and a cup of coffee. What do you think?”
"Now that you are wearing pants, I happily accept your offer! My stomach is growling!” I said laughing.
I asked, "Sheriff, can we get you anything?”
“Miss Blane, I'm not too hungry right now, but thanks for asking," he replied with a wan smile.
"Okay," I replied, patting his hand.
Reynolds had a busy day and was no closer to finding the answer to the question that had plagued him for so long. Who killed Finn McCarthy and why were they so cruel as to leave him on a cold deserted highway to die alone? For 18 years, he lived with this unsolved case. He deserves answers as soon as possible.
I met Axel at Bob's Best Bakery, my favorite place for coffee and bagels. He must have called ahead because Kelsie Schlagel, Bob's niece, arrived just as I sat down with my cheese bagel and coffee. He ordered his usual triple decker sandwich and tall black coffee. A note from Lilli was delivered along with two flourless chocolate tortes. Bob and she wanted to thank us for all we'd done to help apprehend the "floral menace". Included with the note was a gift certificate for ballroom dance lessons. I regarded Axel skeptically.
"It wasn't my idea," he said, biting into his sandwich. “On the back of the certificate is a note from Bob.”
I flipped the certificate over and read aloud, “This is to prepare you both for your duties as host and hostess at our wedding June 1 at 5:00 pm.”
Axel looked stunned.
I laughed. "No, that's not a joke! Lilli adds that she knows I’ll be the perfect hostess and that you ‘shouldn’t freak out because it’s no different than directing traffic for a gubernatorial visit’. This does explain why she is trying to ply me with a delicious chocolate torte though, doesn't it?”
I waited for Axel to finish his sandwich before starting in on my dessert. Axel put his spoon in his torte and remarked that there was something in his torte.
“Probably Bob’s idea of a practical joke,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ve got something in my torte too!”
A small jewelry bag with incredible pearl earrings was wrapped in delicate pink fondant. Axel found a fondant-wrapped bag in his torte as well. His bag contained a pair of handsome gold cufflinks engraved with his initials. .
Taking my hand, he smiled, "It looks like we'll be spending a lot more time together."
“So long as you don't mind bruised toes. I’m not exactly light on YOUR feet am I?” I quipped.
He chuckled, "That's fine with me, it's a small price to pay. Spending time with you is like having my cake, and eating it too.”